Is France finally set to embrace vegetarianism?

Life has always been hard for vegetarians in the land of steak tartare, foie gras and boeuf bourguignon but the times they are a changing. The vegetable enlightenment has finally reached France, but how far will it go?

Is France finally set to embrace vegetarianism?
Is France ready to accept vegetarianism? Photo: AFP
Ask any vegetarian in France about their dining lives and they're bound to tell you two things – Firstly “It's difficult” and secondly, “it's a hell of a lot better than it used to be”. 
Indeed, there are options. The healthy eating guide Happy Cow lists 1,228 restaurants in France that are 100 percent vegetarian and vegan, with 218 of them in Paris.
While restaurants may be adapting, those who cater specifically to France's vegetarian community say that there's never been a better time to ditch meat. 
“This is a cataclysmic moment right now in the vegetarian scene in France,” says Sati Leonne Faulks, a Californian, who is set to open up a vegan cafe in Paris next month.
His new project, called Wild and the Moon, will open in the Marais district of Paris – selling cold pressed juices, smoothies, and a totally vegan and gluten-free menu.
“Vegetarianism seeped into France's mainstream two years ago and vegetarian and vegan places are sprouting up all over the place… but it's still infantile.”
Faulks says restauranteurs have only been trying to keep up with the trend so far, with much of the offerings “lacking taste and soul”.
Vegetarians living in France also testify to the fact  that life has become a little easier for them.
(An asparagus-based dish at Au Passage. Follow on Instagram here for more)
Clare Tynan, a 27-year-old translator in training, says that she's noticed a drastic change over her five years in France.
“When I first met my French boyfriend's parents they told me they'd never met a vegetarian before,” she told The Local. 
“They asked if I ate eggs, if I drank milk… I had to explain that it was only meat that I didn't eat.”
The Briton said that she has had similar reactions in Paris, but also when she lived in Lille, Rennes, and Belfour.
“It's so much easier in the UK, where you can easily pop into a supermarket and grab a vegetarian sandwich. But in France, I remember going into a restaurant in Strasbourg and asking for a tartes fromage without lard and they just said 'No, we don't make it like that, we can't change it',” she says.
Eight top vegetarian restaurants in France

(Why not try a vegetarian baked stuffed portabello today? Photo: Jean-François Chénier/Flickr)
And despite the occasional comment comparing her to “a Muslim who doesn't eat pork”, she says life has become much easier when it comes to finding non-meat alternatives in the supermarkets. 
Those behind the scenes in the restaurant business, meanwhile, are adapting to their diners' demands. 
Edward Delling-Williams, the head chef at Au Passage in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, says that things have changed a lot in recent years.
“The words for vegetarian and vegan are almost the same in French [végétarien and végétalien respectively] – the idea isn't part of their culture, even though there is a big push for it around the world,” he tells The Local. 
“But having said that, we do get vegetarians in a lot more now than when I started three and a half years ago.”
(A Pea Orgetto/”Risotto” from Au Passage/Instagram)
The head chef says that the price of meat and the known environmental effects that the farming of meat have proven reason enough for people to think twice. 
The result has been a change of tack from France's chefs, who are beginning to move away from the traditional fish-based starter, meat-based main, and sweet dessert – preferring instead share dishes and ever-changing menus. Or indeed, featuring vegetables as a replacement for meat in a main course, such as his own broccoli tartare or a beetroot pavlova.
And with a menu that has over fifty percent of dishes being fish-based or vegetable-based, Delling-Williams says he's well equipped for the ever growing number of “pescatarians” [those who don't eat meat but will eat fish].
But how far will things will really go in France. Will the vegetarian enlightenment take over France and see those traditional dishes like Maigret de Canard and tete de veau consigned to the past?
Sati Leonne Faulks believes it's going to be hard for the vegetarian scene to really flourish. 
“It's like coffee. Four years ago, the French really took to it. Everyone wanted a good, filtered coffee. But even so, there will always will be classic places that serve shitty espressos with a croissant,” he said. 
“It's like with food. France is a solid vault of charcuterie, cheese, and wine… No matter what happens with vegetarian food, it can only ever grow to a level where it's just another option. It will never revolutionize the culture of French food.”

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!