An Exciting Time for Vegetarians Living in France

An Exciting Time for Vegetarians Living in France

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Natalie’s fig dish, served at the author’s B&B in southwest France

As a vegetarian living in a forgotten corner of rural southwest France, I’d long resigned myself to difficulties eating out and quizzical looks from my French neighbors, but change is definitely in the air. Back in the early ’90s when I first started to involve myself in French life, the reaction to my dietary choice was rarely accepting. I had chefs tell me that my diet was an insult to French culture, waiters telling me that ham isn’t meat, blank incomprehension and outright refusal to feed me. I was even told that I couldn’t possibly be a vegetarian because, well, I’d be dead if I didn’t eat meat. Sometimes I’d find a restaurant willing to discuss my diet, but the chef would usually demand to know what I could eat – he couldn’t conceive of a plate of food without meat as the main event and seemed to think I’d be happy with a plate of boiled veg. Without omelettes and crepes, I think I would have starved.

Paris, of course, was somewhat easier. Mainstream restaurants weren’t especially welcoming, but there were a small number of vegetarian places. They were always very wholesome and I could feel my life expectancy extending every time I ate in them, but as for exciting culinary experiences? Not much chance of that.

Natalie’s own vegetarian inventions, photo © Natalie Lynch

Fast forward 25 years and, at least here in the countryside, things seem much as they were. But scratch the surface and it’s obvious that change is afoot. Yes, I sometimes get a hostile reaction when I ask about vegetarian options, but it’s becoming rare. More commonly I’ll be asked whether I eat fish, dairy or eggs and suggestions will be made. It might be an expanded version of a vegetarian starter or an amalgamation of vegetarian elements from several dishes. The quality is still uneven, but for me, this is real progress. Some restauranteurs have realised there’s money to be made from feeding frustrated vegetarians and will include a veggie option on their menus. For a real treat, vegetarian restaurants now exist in smaller towns throughout France; no longer are they confined to Paris. My favorite local (ish) eatery (Namasthe in Montauban) doesn’t admit to being vegetarian, although the chef serves nothing else. His clientele is almost exclusively women looking for something lighter at lunchtime. The owner says he has very few vegetarian customers.

photo by Arpège

Paris, as always is ahead of the rest. It’s now possible to have a genuinely gourmet experience where for the first time, as a vegetarian in France I don’t feel I’m getting second best. Top of the pile is the vegetarian taster menu at the triple Michelin starred Arpège in the 7th arrondissement, but for those who can’t quite run to a €320 dinner my choice would be Brasserie Lola in the 15th, not just because of the food, which is wonderful, but because it feels like I’m in Paris, not the vegetarian ghettos of old. I’m looking forward to that reaching my rural idyll.

The author’s Eastern Mess, served at her B&B. Photo: Natalie Lynch

I get a sense that the French love of discussing food is leading some to question their traditional diet. The Paris based magazine SlowlyVeggie is a testament to that, and revealingly, my local Maison de la Presse stocks it. There’s also a constructively militant element, especially Vegoresto. They visit restaurants and tell them that if they include vegan items on their menu permanently, that their organisation will fill the restaurant. We went to one of their events in an outwardly uninspiring Italian restaurant in a zone industrielle, which, as promised, Vegoresto had filled with 60 French vegans and us. True to their word, the restaurant have kept vegan items on their menu which they say are popular. Vegoresto, ever the optimists, say they just need to demonstrate how easy it is to accommodate vegans, and that there’s demand for the food, and the rest will follow. It seems they’re right.

So France still isn’t a vegetarian paradise but I’m very happy to have changed from being a weird foreigner to part of the culinary cutting edge. It’s an exciting time to be a vegetarian in France.

The village of the author’s B&B. Photo: Natalie Lynch
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Natalie Lynch is a chef who runs a vegetarian and vegan chambre d'hôtes in the beautiful medieval village of St Antonin Noble Val, deep in the Aveyron Gorge. She believes that food is one of life’s great pleasures and is thrilled to be able to cook with the wonderful fresh ingredients which are so abundant in southwest France. She has traveled extensively and draws on these culinary adventures endlessly for inspiration. Lately she’s been really excited by Persian and Asian food but who knows where her curiosity will lead her next.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this.
    I live in London but have a second house in l’Occitanie and completely agree with you re-Paris and the rest of France. In fact, I think traditional meat cuisine, certainly in l’Herault, seems very boring and has not kept pace with culinary developments elsewhere. And that is where vegetarian and vegan (I am the latter) cooking has a chance as it tends to be more diverse, exciting and visually much more pleasing, even for omnivores.

    The change is on its way. Slowly but surely. Anyway, the future is ours.

  2. Brasserie Lola was very nice, and it led us to a visit of the 15th. The tiny My Kitch’n in the 17th was great, and also encouraged us to make a visit to the 17th–a lovely little park. Le Grenier de Notre-Dame in the 5th is very much worth a visit. There are others I had located before a visit, but we didn’t have a chance to go to any more. But we enjoyed shopping at shops and markets near our apartment in the 7th, so we didn’t have any problem with finding enough to eat. You can find inexpensive food (baguettes, of course) and wine that way, so you can eat pretty cheaply. And, stopping at a café for bread and coffee or bread and wine can fill you up on the go. Vegetarians, or even vegans like us, don’t have to do without in Paris.

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