Special ‘source’: the secret behind a bestselling veg lasagne | A vision for better food

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With an estimated 5-7% of people in the UK following a vegetarian-based diet, according to market researcher YouGov, food producers across the country have readjusted their ready-to-cook portfolios to include more vegetarian and vegan options.

Charlie Bigham is one man who has embraced this planet-friendly evolution, and the results – a tasty selection of vegetarian dishes – have gone down well with customers.

For more than 25 years, the ready-to-cook food empire that Bigham founded has been producing meals based on fresh, nutritious produce.

He was inspired originally by the flavours and ingredients he came across while travelling the world, and wanted to reproduce that quality in the UK.

As the company grew, Bigham saw the need to cater for the growing number of people concerned with looking after animals and the planet. Working with British producers to source quality ingredients, Bigham created a portfolio of seven vegetarian dishes that have more than hit the spot with shoppers.

The bestseller is a vegetarian lasagne, which Bigham describes as a more planet-friendly evolution of the company’s top-selling beef version. “We thought: the world’s changing – so let’s challenge ourselves to do more,” he says.

“At the heart of a good lasagne is its ragu. So we made a lovely lentil and mushroom based ragu. It’s rich and earthy, and well balanced by the cheesy tang from the topping. People really like it.”

A ragu needs pasta to become a lasagne, and Charlie Bigham’s adds an impressive five layers so that a portion stands up nicely on the plate. The pasta is crafted by its own chefs while trusted farmers grow the fresh peppers, aubergines, courgettes and herbs that go into the dish.

Served with a salad and an easy-drinking Italian wine – perhaps a ruby red Ricasoli Feudo Della Trappola (2019) from Tuscany – it adds up to a mouthwatering meal for minimum effort.

A view of Barber’s fields
Quote: “The lush green grass is rich in proteins and sugars, which is what dairy cows like”
Barber’s Holstein-Friesian herd

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s roll back to that cheesy topping with its pleasing tang. For its cheeses, Charlie Bigham’s turns to Barber’s, a Somerset-based dairy farm and cheesemaker dating back to 1833.

At the helm is Giles Barber who, with his father, uncle, brothers and cousins, has been supplying vintage reserve cheddar to the business for many years. Barber says: “Our farms and factory are just 15 miles from the village of Cheddar. Here, you have the right climatic conditions for dairy cows; the right amount of rainfall, the right soil types, the lush green grass is rich in proteins and sugars, which is what dairy cows like.”

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He believes that “happy cows equal great milk” so the Holstein-Friesian herd enjoys some of the best farming conditions around, with independently accredited Red Tractor dairy standards being the Barbers’ starting point. The cows spend as much time outdoors as possible and when winter drives them inside they have ample space to roam.

Giles’s brother, Chris, is the director of farming and looks after everything from the rearing of young stock to managing the people who do the milking.

Just four ingredients – milk, vegetarian rennet (used to separate the solid curd from the liquid whey), salt and starter cultures – are needed to make the cheddar. “We are the guardians of a collection of starter cultures harvested from milk several generations ago,” says Barber. “They break down the protein to release flavour compounds. This is where the cheese flavours come from. The vintage reserve we produce for Charlie Bigham’s is a result of the breaking down of the proteins for 20 to 24 months.”

Quote: “Cheesemakers are in the dairy every day monitoring how the curds are changing”
Giles Barber checks out cheddar for the vegetable lasagne
A block of cheddar

A tradition important to Barber’s cheesemaking is “cheddaring” – which sees the curd cut and stacked by hand. This technique, along with adherence to other farming and cheesemaking guidelines, has made Barber’s one of only six makers able to call their cheese West Country Farmhouse Cheddar under the protected designation of origin scheme.

“Our cheesemakers, including my 79-year-old uncle, are in the dairy every day monitoring how the curds are changing,” Barber says. “We measure the moisture, fat, protein, acidity and salt levels. The skill lies in determining how that cheddar curd looks, smells, tastes. We’ve added science to the sense skills. It’s a two-pronged approach, using science and art, to make the best cheese.”

Charlie Bigham and Giles Barber

When it comes to being environmentally aware, Charlie Bigham’s suppliers are one step ahead. This ethical thinking is one of the reasons the company is certified as a B-Corp organisation. “Sustainability is important to us and to the people who buy our cheese,” says Barber. “It’s in our business DNA to look after the land we farm, the cows in our care, and the community we operate in.

“In fact it’s something that should be important to all of us who inhabit the planet.”

Tuscan panzanella salad – great with vegetable lasagne

Prep 30 min
Serves 4

500g tomatoes, go for the best quality you can
200g stale ciabatta or sourdough
2 cloves garlic,
finely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
50ml extra virgin olive oil
20ml red wine vinegar
1 medium cucumber,
peeled and cut into small chunks
1 medium red onion, finely sliced
Handful torn basil leaves
Handful small capers,
squeezed of brine

Wash the tomatoes and slice each into six wedges. Place into a bowl and toss with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Leave to macerate; those lovely juices will form the dressing.

Tear the bread into chunks, roughly the same size as the tomato wedges. Leave in a warm place for 20 minutes – this helps to dry it out.

Add the sliced red onion and chopped cucumber to the tomatoes, gently toss everything together. Add the chunks of bread and allow to sit for a few minutes, so the bread begins to soak up the juices. Sprinkle with the capers and fresh basil before serving.

Illustration of tomatoes and lentils

Even the best home cooks like the occasional night off, and that’s where Charlie Bigham’s dishes come into their own. With everything from steak pies to paella and salmon en croute, it has never been easier to feed your family well

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