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.
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.
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.
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.