France: Culinary Masters? A Veggie's View
Wednesday, 1 March 2023
The thoughts of a vegetarian on French cuisine after a few months living there, complete with tips for other veggies abroad.
The first thing nearly everyone says when you say you’re going to France on your year abroad is “oh my god the food” and I’m not poopooing the patisseries – they are amazing – it’s the savoury cuisine poses an issue for me. To be fair, I’m in the north of France, in a region known for pork and seafood. I don’t eat either, and I mainly experience French food in a school canteen but even outside that it just doesn’t look appetising. Full disclosure: I haven’t heard the carnivores complaining much. French food, at the accessible everyday level, kind of looks like if medieval peasants had access to modern kitchens. They’re also not so good at adapting to other culture’s food, there’s much less diversity in the smaller towns and cities and what there is can be a little spice-less. And that is coming from a white Brit. It’s kind of bad.
When it comes to eating in France, size really matters. The veggie food available in my small town limited to a four cheese panini, pizza, quiche or a crepe, and then you’re limited by opening hours could be a whole other article. In the next nearest town, which is a bit bigger, there’s more variety but not so much that I didn’t get a bit over-excited when visiting the region’s capital which had more than one Indian restaurant, so much good Thai food, and a vaguely unsettling amount of ramen shops right next to each other. Going somewhere bigger again, and Paris has international brands that you recognise. Realistically, it is really difficult to eat traditional French food and be vegetarian. It just isn’t a part of the culture here; I spent the first month half joking that I should have learnt Italian.
France in general does not appear to understand vegetarianism at all. I’m working and living in a school, which has been kind enough to let me join the boarding school students in the cantine for lunch. This is great because food here is a bit more expensive than at home, and a full meal for three euros fifty with no cooking time is nothing to sniff at. That said, I was once given a plate of potatoes and showed back to the entrees counter (yes, France does entrees even in schools) to add some vegetables. That was the worst I’ve seen so far but a good meal still usually contains pasta with no sauce or couscous that somehow tastes vaguely of olive oil. They have expanded their horizons a little, I got a veggie lasagne last week, but that’s not the norm. I’ve eaten a lot of boiled vegetables. I’m tired. When I then started to try to cook at home, for variety if nothing else, veggie sausages don’t exist here. I mean that literally, the government banned vegetarian and vegan substitutes from using the names of meat products, in order to protect French industries. This doesn’t stop the small but growing number of veggies in France, it just makes it so much harder to find anything. There’s an organic section but its not all there and I only found the sausages by using click and collect and searching specific brands… For other veggies who are feeling a bit lost: Céréal Bio can be found at E. Leclerc, which I’ve also found to be a little cheaper than Carrefour.
When all is said and done, I will big up my new home and shout out the Breton specialty: Galettes. They’re vaguely related to crepes but savoury and crispier and restaurants that do them normally have a goats cheese and honey galette and its just so good. There is always a good option for me here.
My final tip: get the confidence to talk to your serveurs. My life got so much better once I could say “Je prends ça mais sans le poitrine – si c’est possible?” and had the confidence to branch out from my usual safe options. That said for the first few days: pizzerias, creperies and cafes are your friend, with the usual fast food brands obviously still there too. Beware though: McDonalds and co. all have different menus here.