South Africa

VEGAN FOR LIFE: Tamsin Snyman’s journey to plant-based healing

Pasta with vegan cheese – which is not difficult to find – and tomatoes is a quick and easy meal. (Photo: Supplied)

An extensive career in the world of food, coupled with a family history of dread disease and the necessity of proper diet, have led Tamsin Snyman to create a range of plant-based products.

Orange is the new black, 50 is the new 40, and Veganuary is the new January. It’s a global movement which encourages – challenges – people to adopt a vegan diet for 31 days. Today being 22 January, 2021, we can all relax; it’s actually quite doable now.

Whatever your eating preferences, it’s impossible to ignore the ever-growing exodus from the meat camp to the veggie side. Or maybe they were always there, and it’s the chefs and restaurants and retailers that are catering more for vegans than ever before, and being highly visible and vocal about it. For me, I’m aware I’ve written more stories about vegans and vegetarians in the past three or so years than in my entire career. Plus, I also know some real live vegans, which I never used to, and they’re actually quite nice people. Very glowy. 

None of them has made me feel bad about my reluctance to give up animal products. In fact, when I told Tamsin Snyman I’d had her vegan mayo on a bun with gammon, she laughed, and I instantly liked her even more. She’d invited me to visit her at her test kitchen at Clay Café in Hout Bay, “at the bottom of their garden under the trees”, which immediately sounded lovely, and in keeping with the lush naturalness one associates with vegan vibes.

Plant-Based Creative operates from this small test kitchen in the garden of Clay Café in Hout Bay. (Photo: Supplied)

This is where Snyman is churning out amazing products which are handy pantry cornerstones, as well as yummy treats, under the name of her new business, Plant-Based Creative, or PBC for the sake of convenience going forward in this story. It was launched during lockdown in 2020, following a months-long stint of running the Bay Brigade, a Hout Bay-based meal delivery service while restaurants were not able to serve sit-down diners.

Making the products, putting them on a shelf and expecting people to buy them (and they do) is not enough, said Snyman. That’s why she backs them up with recipes and consultations.

“I want to be in people’s homes, helping them transition into a more plant-based space. I want them to understand why they are buying the products,” she said. “I will ‘plant pimp your pantry’, take out the things you probably don’t realise are harmful, and offer alternatives; some will be mine, some will be other producers I’ve tapped into in the past six months. I will never take anything away and not replace it,” she promised. “I will put a sticky note saying ‘not great but you throw it out’.”

It’s her wild passion, she said. Shortly after our interview, Snyman was off to Lekkerwater at De Hoop for a 24-hour “LSD” – a Look, See, Decide excursion. She’s been consulting for the property since it was in its architectural stage, and is checking to see what it is offering as dietary alternatives. “There are guests arriving at these top-end destinations with dietaries. I don’t want them being served an aubergine and tomato tower,” she said.

Consulting is a big part of Snyman’s raison d’être, and she’s been quietly and secretly studying menus, seeing where and how dishes can be veganised with no problem. “If it tastes beautiful and makes an amazing impression, then don’t label it. Simply celebrate good food. Healthy is a bonus,” she said. 

As a further aid to those who wish to include more plant-based eating in their lives, Snyman is launching a Game Changer box at the end of January 2021, filled with hyper-local things she believes can help, complete with recipes and tips.

Plant-Based Creative has come up with a ‘Game Changer’ box which is filled with its own products as well as a selection of others to help you on your vegan path. (Photo: C&D Photo)

The PBC range includes the aforementioned mayonnaise. “I needed mayo, and creating a vegan mayo was an ‘aha!’ moment,” said Snyman. “Growing up I never knew there was a thing such as commercial mayo. With Mom, everything was made from scratch.” 

The mayonnaise is made with aquafaba, the liquid in a can of chickpeas, which replaces eggs and egg whites in vegan recipes. It’s that simple. 

“Canola oil, English mustard powder, freshly squeezed lemon juice – always freshly squeezed, it’s more stable, a pinch of white pepper, apple cider vinegar, Himalayan salt, and the trick is to hold the oil high, and add it in a thin stream,” said Snyman. “I like to cut my mayo with a knife.”

PBC’s shakshuka served here on avo mash and sourdough bread. (Photo: Supplied)

The red pepper shakshuka was the first product. “I needed to have my old-fashioned feeling of Sunday breakfast,” she said. Pop a poached egg on top by all means. Made with smoked Spanish paprika, coriander, cumin, lots of onion, celery, and red peppers, it’s thick enough to scoop out of the jar with a spoon, dollop on pasta, spread on toast, or stir through a plant-based mince bolognese. I’m planning to use mine on pizza.

The Bliss Balls are little mouthfuls of protein power, in three flavours, trimmed down from about 36: salted caramel, chocolate macadamia, and cookie dough protein pops. Ingredients include raw cacao, vegan 70% chocolate, plant-based protein powder (some have whey), oats, dates, coconut, and macadamia nuts roasted and blitzed mixed with date puree. 

Because these things all came out of Snyman finding and making fab things to use in the kitchen, she also needs to have a treat when she feels like it. Enter the triple layered cashew nut chocolate mousse, sold in individual little pots. Among the listed ingredients on this, and the rest, is “love”. Everything is gluten-free too, from the seasonings (white pepper can contain gluten, who knew?) to the orange and almond granola.

All this writing sent me off to the fridge to retrieve a chocolate mousse. It was only when I had to use my spoon rather forcefully that I saw the label says to leave it to stand for 15 minutes first. This is information you need to have, because it’s not easy to wait. Worth it though.

“I’m not vegan. That’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve had to grapple with in my 25 years of celebrating anything and everything in this industry,” said Snyman, daughter of the late, great Lannice Snyman, a legend and an icon. 

“When Mom was alive, she dragged me to restaurants from when I was 13, so I’ve been reviewing since forever, and professionally for 25 years; locally and World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

“What I realised during lockdown was that for the first time in my professional eating career I had the opportunity to choose what I put in my mouth. Over the past few years I’d been cleaning up my diet in between eating at restaurants four or five times a week. It was excessive.

“I wasn’t feeling well. I naturally cleaned up – completely plant-based – with beautiful vegetables, salads, juices. I kind of loved it. Even a 24-hour fast if that’s what my gut wanted.

“I was a vegetarian when I was a teenager, and I think that was all about looking after the poor little piggies and my mom said, ‘Suck it up, you’re going to be in this industry, I’m giving you the baton, so just get over yourself’.’ So that didn’t last long,” laughed Snyman.

The instinct to eat plant-based helped her feel better, and one of the elemental changes for Snyman was having seen up close and personal what dread disease had done to her family.

“It wiped out Mom and Dad in 2010, and very shortly after that, Chris, my husband. I was very protected when Mom was ill; all the family issues and results and everything were handled by Courts (Courtenay) and Dad (Michael), because they knew I was in a high-risk pregnancy.”

Snyman and her husband had been told they had about a one percent chance of conceiving naturally. “Mom died when Trinity was four weeks old. I remember having Trin at Vincent Pallotti in the same ward my mom gave birth to me, room 4. I just wanted that room. And knowing I needed my mom. The gynae came through and said ‘your mom’s here but my god she doesn’t look well’.

“Four months later, Dad passed – massive heart attack. Four years later – it all happened in fours, the Chinese say it’s the number for death – Chris.” 

Having not been involved with her mother’s treatment issues (Lannice kept her illness completely private, from the world in general), when Chris was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer two years later, Snyman thought to herself, she had only one opportunity. “We met the oncologist on the same day of the diagnosis and I asked her ‘so what do I do on the sidelines as the freaking out wife? From a food perspective, I’m a cook, a chef, what do I do to support him nutritionally?’. She said ‘I’m an oncologist, not a nutritionist. That’s a dietary issue, you will have to wage that war on your own’.”

Snyman immersed herself in reading and research, and learned everything she could about pH balance. “Dread disease thrives in acidic environments and cannot survive in an alkalised body, that is an underlying basic I understood. I went into it full-on for two years – juicing vegetables, cutting out fruits. he would have his chemo days when I’d go along with my juicer and basket of veggies, and juice for not only him but for other patients… celery, cucumber, cabbage, and parsley with a knob of ginger. It was a special time, being able to impart some kind of knowledge.”

Such management overdrive sounds soulless but she had to treat it like a project, said Snyman.

“They don’t give you a prognosis any more, believing the power of the mind is much better, and less limiting. If the patient asks, they have to tell them, but I think it’s because people are defying the odds and giving themselves every opportunity they can.”

After Chris died (from deep vein thrombosis on the verge of remission), Snyman went back to see that previous oncologist; she just had to know: how long did they silently expect him to survive? The answer was two to four months.

“I was floored. I asked if there was any chance it had to do with the nutritional support, and she said she could not say it had no effect. 

“I reckon for me that was quite a big closure.”

Chickpeas, soybeans, and lentils in brown, red and yellow are an excellent source of protein. (Photo: Supplied)

Snyman then threw herself into being a single mom, and travelled all over the world, eating and drinking, but not without PTSD which had her sobbing into her pillow. At the end of 2018, she was about to board a plane for Monaco for the Chefs World Summit, at the invitation of Mauro Colagreco from Mirazur. The day before departure, she went for a routine mammogram. Two white marks, and an immediate biopsy was recommended, but Snyman was having none of it. 

“I went, and I put it out of my mind, in a box, and left it at Cape Town International Airport to deal with when I got back. It was an exceptionally beautiful trip and I needed to be present in that moment, incredible food, amazing markets, meeting all these lovely people, being entrenched in the programme of events…” 

The biopsy confirmed two malignant lumps, which were removed via ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, in January 2019. “There was enough volume, thank you Mom for the big boobs!” said Snyman. Even so, to balance things out she had to have a reduction on the other side. “So I had a boob job, silver lining – don’t have to wear bras,” she smiled.

Three months at Lifeshine Wellness Centre in Somerset West followed, where her body was mopped, cleaned and scrubbed of any lingering toxins and poisons. Discharged in the best possible condition for her age, Snyman went back into her old life: six months of eating and travelling – Tokyo, Italy, Singapore, Indonesia, Belgium, France, Amsterdam. “It was obscene,” she said. “My body was not coping. It was dinners to lunches to speakeasies to bars to parties on four hours’ sleep. When you’re in that space, being hosted in a country or city, you have an itinerary of note.”

In January 2020, the Berezutsky brothers from Twin Gardens in Moscow sent Snyman and Trinity tickets to visit Russia. “We had the most amazing trip. When we got back, the rumblings of Covid began and everything handbraked – travel, writing, restaurant reviewing, consulting. 

“However, I had the opportunity to eat fully vegan during lockdown. I still have a car with leather seats, and leather handbags. Clean vegan eating – I wrestled with this. What do I do? Turn my back on everything or remain that person that’s approachable? I’m an all or nothing person.

Mushrooms can be grown sustainably without the use of any animal byproducts, and represent a tasty and nutritious food option for vegetarians and vegans. (Photo: Supplied)

“I thought about it for most of the second half of 2020. I have been serving this industry for so long I don’t feel fundamentally like I want to be fully vegan. I just want to embrace wellness and balance, so I adopted the 80/20 rule; 80% plant-based, and the 20% is if someone invites me to a dinner and has no idea, I won’t put up a fuss. I just want to be able to go do a review.” 

Everyone has their own “rules” for being vegan (or vegetarian). Some do it for health purposes, others for ethical reasons. Others dabble, like me, who happens to like vegan mayonnaise on a ham sandwich. DM/TGIFood

For more information, stockists and recipes, click here. Snyman encourages visitors to her Clay Café kitchen, where she envisages conscious conversations over vegan wine and pizza. She isn’t pausing for breath either, because a vegan recipe book – backed with all the real science and nutrition by experts in their fields – is planned, hopefully for 2021.

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