Downunder isn’t a bad place to live if you follow a vegetarian diet: partial, full, total or vegan. The produce is fresh and the chefs creative enough to allow vegetarians tasty alternatives to meat with options far more adventurous than lentil soup or a plate of lettuce. England isn’t bad, either. Even that old stalwart of the UK chain-restaurant scene, The Angus Steakhouse, considers itself vegetarian-friendly. So much of the population these days has dietary preferences, be it according to personal philosophy, biology, allergy or religion, that it would be restaurant suicide not to offer something for every palate.
France, by contrast, is a country famed for her cuisine, yet still struggling with the concept of vegetarianism and there are plenty of anecdotes to support this fact. One vegetarian blogger found only meat dishes on one Parisian menu, so politely asked if the chef might be able to whip her up an omelette. “Non,” came the unhelpful waiter’s reply as he turned his back on her in favour of carnivorous patrons, “if you want an omelette, I suggest you make one at home.”
In fact, it’s not in the larger towns and cities such as Paris and Toulouse that a vegetarian is likely to encounter problems, as there are usually ethnic eateries with plenty of vegetable dishes on offer. It’s when you venture into the French backwaters that hunger sets in.
Monsieur and I were travelling through Lot and our stomachs were rumbling. Too far from the nearest town to get there before the restaurants pulled down there shutters at 2pm, we popped into the only place in the village where one could dine. Well, using the word ‘dine’ might be pushing it a bit… There was a set menu. Hurrah! It was steak-frites or steak-frites followed by salad and chevre. Monsieur was happy. He loves steak-frites. We asked for a vegetarian option for me, which duly appeared: a large plate of frites. No garnish. No attempt at an alternative. Just frites. Luckily, I could appreciate them in my state of hunger, but it really did shock me that in a land full of delightful produce, there seems no interest in developing a market for the non-meat-eater. In fact, it’s almost bad enough to say that in France there is a strong sense of anti-vegetarian feeling.
One night, the only available place to eat was in the dining room of the local hostel for pilgrims on the Saint Jacques de Compostelle trail. We had some trouble convincing the waiter to give us a table at all, such was the demand. However, following a quick tour of the nearby cemetery (not nearly as morbid as it sounds), we found ourselves welcomed into the hostel and seated, ready to eat. Here, there was one menu and one menu only, but we never saw it written down. By requesting a table, we had laid our appetites at the mercy of the chef and whatever he had happened to cook that day, which was meaty. The starter consisted of pork rillettes and I was forced to break my no-bread rule by tucking into the vegetarian option: slices of fresh baguette. Monsieur, meanwhile, benefited from double portions that evening, as the main was lamb in a creamy sauce accompanied by gloops of rice. When the waiter left the room, I quietly swapped my cutlet for Monsieur’s bones. This was a case of Carry On Eating! At least Monsieur doesn’t like cheese, so I managed to add his round of Rocamadour chevre to my salad. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating evening, talking to the pilgrims, learning about the former nunnery in which the hostel was situated and playing with a pair of tiny kittens, so I easily forgave the lack of food in my stomach. The following day, I just made sure we made up for it.
Back in London, I found myself at a business lunch at a French establishment, prompting a vibrant discussion about French cuisine. Somewhat surprisingly, as we drifted into reverie of delicacies and recipes, we were brought back to reality with a thud. “France is a dreadful place for vegetarians,” proffered one host, “my girlfriend is vegetarian and every time we visit France, she has problems. Either she has to eat a plate of chips or boiled veg or nothing at all.” Finding this a terribly defeatist attitude, I argued the point. “Yes, it’s hard to source palatable vegetarian food in remote France, but in larger villages or towns it’s not so bad. You simply have to read the menus before settling on an eatery, and resign yourself to the fact that you may have to compromise a bit.”
It’s possible to find places serving vegetable terrines, fresh asparagus, seasonal meat-free salads, a good vichyssoise or artichauts vinaigrette alongside plates for the carnivores among us. Many establishments offer an excellent selection of vegetable side dishes, such as pommes dauphinoises, courgettes with herbs, ratatouille or spinach, stuffed peppers, garlic mushrooms, or a plate of frites if you fancy them. A couple of these dishes should make quite an appetising venture into the delights of French vegetable preparation. So what if the meat snob waiter grimaces at your order? That’s his problem.
Advice for the vegetarian visiting France: if the French options are all steak, steak and more steak, try one of the following.
- Go Italian. Most Italian menus offer vegetarian pizzas, pasta sauces, salads and more.
- Try an ethnic restaurant. Chinese/ Moroccan/ Indian/ Vietnamese – most will have a choice of vegetarian options.
- Even McDonalds offers a vegetarian menu these days. It seems like sacrilege to visit a burger joint in a chef’s paradise, such as France, but one must eat, and if nothing else works, there are always those golden arches.
- In the Basque Country, tapas bars offer a selection of vegetarian plates. Think tortillas and patatas bravas.
- Self-cater or enjoy a picnic by visiting the local supermarket and stocking up on crudites, dips, salads and bread. In the Bio (organic) section, there will be yet more options for the vegetarian visitor.
- In case a meal leaves you wanting, carry some healthy snacks to tide you over to the next, hopefully more satisfying meal.