Nothing beats the pleasure of wandering through a market and creating that night’s menu round what is in season. Or better still, walking out into the garden and picking something fresh for the table that night. Or the trip to the boulangerie every morning, or the wonderful patisserie, or…the list is endless.
La vie française is all about good food, good wine and good company. Being a vegetarian in France is not so widespread as it is in other countries, but with a little care and planning, the vegetarian in France can enjoy all three to the full. It is not always easy. Here are a few tips to make things easier
1. Learn to cook
Although you will find takeaways and pizzas in larger towns it’s unlikely there will be anything without meat on the menu. If you want a varied diet then to learn how to prepare your own meals is a must.
Even the larger supermarkets offer few ready meals suitable for vegetarians. You will find pizzas, pastas and a few soya burgers (experience has found the latter rather disappointing).
On the plus side, unlike in the UK, local supermarkets usually have a range of dried pulses, including green lentils and haricot beans. If you are a vegan, you will be pleased to note that soya milk and other soya products are widely available.
2. Avoid cheese.
It will almost certainly contain rennet, which is of animal origin. Vegetarian cheese is another as yet unknown quantity in most of France.
3. Learn vegetarian French
Developing a wide food vocabulary will make scanning supermarket labels and restaurant menus much easier.
In restaurants, never assume that because something doesn’t appear to contain meat it won’t. You may fall prey to ‘lardons in the salad’ syndrome. These bacon bits get in everything, and aren’t always mentioned on the menu. The same applies to ‘vegetable’ ready meals in supermarkets. If in doubt, ask.
4. Research the area
Try and find somewhere within driving distance of a large town, where you are likely to find a health food shop for grains, pulses, soya products, and tofu. These products are more expensive than in the UK.
Towns may also have a Chinese Traiteur (delicatessen) where you can buy tofu, aduki beans and soy sauce in larger quantities, and cheaper.
5. Eating out
If eating out is important to you, find out if there are any vegetarian restaurants. The “Guide de Restaurants Végétarien et/ou Bio”, published by Laplage will be useful. Vegetarian Guides publish guides to “Vegetarian France” and “Vegetarian Europe”.
Otherwise, don’t expect to find a vegetarian option on restaurant menus. If you do, it will probably be fish! Telephoning in advance can sometimes be helpful. Emphasise that you want something with, ‘pas de viande, pas de poisson’. Expect to be offered an omelette, and you will be pleasantly surprised if you get something more imaginative.
You will be very lucky to find that old veggie standby, the local Indian, I’m afraid. We have come across just three in our area, and two of those had closed down. You may, however, find Chinese, Italian and Moroccan restaurants offering food suitable for veggies. You can scout for ethnic restaurants using the Pages Jaunes .
6. Stock up before you go
This helps ease the transition period. You can then decide what you can do without, what you are able to obtain in France, and what you really, really need.
French health food shops do not carry Sosmix and Burgamix. You may decide to put them on your list. If you are into Indian cookery spices may be a necessity, as some commonly used ones are rarely found in French supermarkets.
Keep your stockpile fed by ruthlessly exploiting visiting friends and relations. Mail order from the UK can be costly.
7. Join a society
If you are not already a member, consider joining an association and subscribe to a website and newsletter for useful resources, and the chance to make contact with other vegetarians.
8. Expect to be regarded as an oddity
You will probably be the first vegetarian your new neighbours have ever encountered. Be flexible when socialising. Our neighbours invited us for dinner, and were taken aback when we explained we did not eat meat or fish. They had no idea what to cook, so suggested aperitifs instead. We happily accepted. When we invited them back we got a chance to show off our range of veggie nibbles.
Do not go into the morality of eating meat. Simply say it is a lifestyle choice, and you will avoid giving offence. Your goal is to integrate into the community. You will not do that if people think you are being critical of their way of life.
9. Grow your own
By UK standards, the selection of herbs available is limited. In the supermarkets both fresh and dried herbs are expensive, and only available in small quantities. Local markets are cheaper.
Consider starting a herb garden, and concentrating on hard to obtain varieties. If you think you will have the time, and the space, go for a full blown potager (kitchen garden).
10. Enjoy life!
Having worked to overcome the difficulties, relax and enjoy yourself.
France may not be the most veggie-friendly place on earth, but there are a lot of compensations. Firstly, you will have access to an abundance of fresh produce. In our area there is a market close by every day of the week, and even the local supermarket has tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes. The range of herbs may be limited but what you do get will have a stronger aroma and a better taste than much on offer in the UK.
•WIth thanks to Val Patchett