One of the best vegetarian meals I have ever had was on a mini-break in France, my native country. It was in Carteret, a small town in Normandy, where my English husband and I stopped for one night in a family run hotel-restaurant
Nothing on the menu in the reception was suitable for me, but as soon as I asked the smart and efficient looking “patronne” whether it would be possible to have a suitable dish that same evening, she said she’d ask her husband and picked up the phone. Following this brief call – which I thought sounded a touch bossy – I enjoyed one of the best vegetarian meals I have ever had in a restaurant. It was excellent. Unforgettable
Titbits were brought to our table with our drinks and a big carafe of ice water as soon as we had ordered. These “amuse-gueules” were hot small savoury petits-fours, with a tomato dip
Unlike my husband I didn’t have a choice of dishes. My starter and my main course were a delicious cream of lentil soup, followed by a haricot beans dish cooked in lots of olive pâté and dried tomatoes served with a tasty side salad, all with plenty of warm crispy bread rolls (topped up before any request) – and butter (which is still not automatically served with bread in France – never mind Normandy butter!)
Ours sweets were equally superb. We had lemon ice-creams with brandy snaps, and my husband’s coffee was served with a few small jellies and tiny chocolate chip biscuits.
And though France doesn’t have a reputation for being vegetarian-friendly, it’s a lot better than it used to be. Many restaurants offer meat-free options such as pasta and ratatouille, and more and more are offering vegetarian options.
What’s it like for vegetarians in. France
Present statistics for vegetarians are more or less the same in both France and the UK, currently estimated to be up to 5% of the population. However, it’s still is not quite as easy for vegetarians to eat out in France as it is in the UK. But it is getting better. It’s not that difficult to get a decent, meat or fish free meal in France. If you’re a strict vegetarian and don’t eat cheese or eggs – it can be a bit more tricky. That said, vegan restaurants and food stalls are popping up all over the place – particularly in bigger cities.
I have also found a solution that works well if you’re a vegetarian. I just pick a dish on the menu, and ask whether they would mind altering it by just omitting the meat or the fish, and also by adding other – “safe” – ingredients that are used in one of the other dishes instead
So, punctuating my questions with “s’il vous plaît” and “merci”, perhaps sounding slightly apologetic (and trying my best to look hungry), I first ask whether they would mind altering one of the dishes on the menu:
“je pourrais/je peux avoir les pâtes/la salade niçoise/l’omelette/le riz MODIFIÉ s’il vous plaît?” (Could I / can I please have the pasta dish/the niçoise salad/the omelet/the rice dish WITH A FEW CHANGES please?)
When staff then enquire about what “modification” I mean, I tell them what I would like taken out of one of the set dishes listed, and, when possible I also suggest what they could add in place, “si possible?”
For example, I would ask if:
“je pourrais/je peux avoir les pâtes/la ratatouille/les haricots verts/les tomates à la provençale/le riz/les frites, SANS le poulet, le thon, le jambon, les crevettes” (could I please have the pasta dish/the ratatouille/the green beans/the tomatoes/the rice/the chips WITHOUT the chicken/the tuna fish/the ham/the prawns) for the initial request, and for the second one, I would add:
«ET À LA PLACE, AVEC les noix/les oeufs durs/les champignons/les coeurs d’artichaut/l’omelette/la salade?» (AND INSTEAD, WITH the nuts/the hard boiled eggs/the mushrooms/the artichoke hearts/the omelette/the lettuce?)
If you are a strict vegetarian, you’ll find that a small number of cheeses that do not include “pressure animale” (animal products) are available in most of the main supermarkets. And food choices for vegetarians are improving all the time as demand is growing.
Top tips for vegetarians in France
Ask for dishes that have no fish or meat rather than asking for vegetarian dishes.
Look out for V-Label on products.
Ask at local tourist offices for tips on restaurants that serve vegetarian food.
Monique Jackman is an author, writer, teacher and translator who lives in the Var, southern France.