Vegetarian you Said? In La France!

“And I ‘ope you will zoon be better”. This politely disdainful comment by the maitre d’ of a top Paris restaurant as he served up an omelette with sweeping aplomb but little enthusiasm, typified and still does, the fate of those asking for vegetarian in the hallowed halls of haute cuisine.

Abundant options in food markets

Indeed his reaction, a true story to which this writer can attest, in a maison with a ten-sided menu bulging with carefully crafted meaty French cuisine attuned to making your meal a palette-bursting experience, is perfectly understandable.

Where after all is the skill, the bon goût , the art form, the savoir faire in producing an omelette or a bloated salad side-dish, when centuries of French tradition and the culinary skills of teams of top chefs are at your disposal?

In boudin-blessed and pork-fanatical France, according to writers whose experiences dot the Internet, a vegetarian can expect “to lose ten kilos during your holiday”, better have “a good sense of humour”, be prepared to adapt Italian cucina or in a big city seek out Indian, Thai or Chinese alternatives.  And should you have the misfortune of  being strictly vegan forget eating out!

Or that is how it appears to many non-meat eating visitors and residents in France. Yet this view is surely out of touch in a country where recipe books and online recipe sites positively bulge with wonderful tasty entrées, side dishes, soups, salads, cheeses and similar delights made from eminently vegetarian ingredients.

Nevertheless the very idea of a repas without its focal point – meat, fish, poultry, seafood – remains a taboo in restaurants, bistros, cafes and temples of the palate across a country where cuisine is king, the highest art form, and a cultural achievement symbolising fine living.

(See what can happen in extreme circumstances when ‘vegetarian’ is mentioned here: British’ Cassoulet re-ignites 100-Year-War)

Vegetarian option? Not too many and not too often

Help however is at hand particularly in the extraordinary food markets of France where anyone not of a meaty bent can find plenty of fresh, seasonal and local foodstuffs (primeurs) to prepare themselves exactly as this writer discovered several years ago on a trip to the provinces. Her piece is titled: “Hungriest person in all France is a vegetarian traveler”

Official statistics redundantly suggest that vegetarians are a minority in France. Around a million locals or some 2% of the population reportedly cleave to a form of eating regarded as a heresy to most of the rest of their countrymen and women.

There are French vegetarian groups which offer lists of suitable amenities but the lack of any real support is to some extent reflected in this recent “we’ve gone bust” announcement by a national vegetarian magazine: “I therefore regret to inform you that the number 41, November-December 2011 edition, was the last printed. A final edition goes to press, web version only, early in 2012, bringing together the latest articles received from our volunteers. I have not been able to attract a sufficient number of subscribers to sustain this publication, and sponsors and advertisers show far too little interest in this type of highly focused, crusading media”.

The largest vegetarian website lists the national total of vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly outlets as follows:

By way of comparison there are reportedly 65,849 restaurants in France and you can access them all and make an online reservation here.

French attitudes to vegetarians are not helped by some of the purple prose to be found when searching for a sensible debate on the subject — this outpouring is one example.

Yet there are gourmet non-meat offerings in France and the way around the problem if you are a visitor, is both to speak and understand French (or be with someone who does), cleanse the term vegetarian from your vocabulary and prepare to negotiate with your waiter, in French.

The deal is to persuade a normally perfectly co-operative mine host to upgrade say a clearly vegetarian starter into a main dish or agree to providing two obviously vegetarian entrées on the menu as the main course.

Similar tips apply in many other parts of Europe (Portugal, Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland to name but a few) where in the main, vegetarian equals ‘barbarian’ in highly cuisine-conscious cultures.

Forget asking for tofu or similar British or North American vegetarian staples, you’d be wasting your breath even attempting to explain what you were after. You will have more luck however if you stumble into a French health food store (magasin bio) — where the tofu will likely be heat-sealed and imported from Japan. If this all dampens your enthusiasm a bit, don’t give up, try a self catering holiday.

However there is no reason why, as a vegetarian, you would not eat very well in France. Just pick and choose from the non-meat dishes you find on many menus — the distant provinces and La France Profonde excepted —  leave your “I’m a vegetarian” T-shirt at home and keep the whole issue low key.

Normally waiters are delighted to describe the ingredients in each dish in vast detail and happy to help find a suitable alternative provided you steer clear of that one sacrilegious word — vegetarian.

French News Online would welcome  readers views and experiences —  good and bad  — on dining out as a vegetarian in France. Tell us in the comments. (Vegans s’abstenir, abstain, as French ads say).


Vegetarianism is Good for the Planet

Vegetarianism Good for the Planet? (Photo credit: cgulyas2002)

Some helpful or topical websites:
Vegetarians in France

Vegetarianism in France – Végétarisme en France

France for Vegetarians – a Veggie Guide

On being vegetarian in France (Rosa Jackson’s Edible Adventures)

Vegetarians Not Well Catered to in France

French government ‘banning vegetarianism’ in school canteens

Slow Travel France – Vegetarian Restaurants, Natural Foods Stores

Vegetarian Restaurants France – Health Food Stores by HappyCow

Association Végétarienne de France – Association Végétarienne de France. Ce site dédié au végétarisme et à sa diffusion tente aussi de rassembler les végétariens, végétaliens et sympathisants  

Vegetarianism in France – Végétarisme en France – Traditional French cuisine has a lot of meat, and some say that vegetarianism is the “anti-French” diet 

Qui est végétarien en France ? – Une enquête menée auprès des clients d’un magasin de produits « bio » donne un aperçu du profil et des motivations de certains végétariens 

France 5 – Manger végétarien : c’est la santé ? part 1 – YouTube  -Émission du 26/04/2011 Présentation 2.5 % des Américains sont végétariens. En France, ils sont un million de personnes 

réVéGez vous ! » Les végétariens en France Groupe Prospective – Les végétariens en France Groupe Prospective. Combien sont-ils ? Quels types de 

Etre végétarienne en France : Les jeunes ont la parole  – Selon, le président de la République Française, « Nous avons la meilleure gastronomie du monde ».C’est vrai que laFrance est connue pour 

A short  history of vegetarianism in France

UPDATE: Here is one Mum’s experience with school menus when her youngster announced he was going vegetarian.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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10 Responses to Vegetarian you Said? In La France!

  1. Wendy March 25, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    It’s also very important to know that ‘vegetarian’ in French includes fish, while ‘vegetalian’ is vegan. There is no *real* equivalent of an ovo-lacto-style vegetarian, who eats eggs and milk but not any animals!

    Plenty of veggie options here in the Alps, but they *all* revolve around a huge amount of cheese (fondue, raclette, goats’ cheese salad etc.). I’m cheesed out.

  2. March 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Wendy: Thanks for pointing out that critical distinction and I can sympathise with being cheesed out. The folklore does say that with more than 365 varieties, there is one type of cheese for every day of the year however.

  3. Trot March 27, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    One wonders why some visitors from North America want to come to France. They say they want to experience a European way of life, but many do not.

    A goodly minority are vegetarian (because they have taken to that way of life in North America) and will not try typical French food. Others are deeply suspicious of something they don’t recognise or would not eat at home and so do not try out a new experience. To top it all, many from the States feel it morally objectionable to drink alcohol and so do not even try the wine!

  4. Zoё Lappin March 28, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Tweeted advice from Zoё Lappin:
    @FrenchNewsonlin Am veggie + spent 2 month roadtrip round France… Secret is to apologise profusely to start + delight in anything offered+ + I enjoyed some truly superb veggie meals as a result… But being able to negotiate in French is a must! :o)

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