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Michelin awards first star to vegan restaurant in France

A vegan restaurant in the French southwest on Monday won a Michelin Guide star, the first for a establishment serving only animal-free products in France.

Michelin awards first star to vegan restaurant in France
Every year, the Michelin Guide reveals its pick of France's top restaurants. Photo: AFP

Claire Vallée runs the ONA restaurant in the city of Ares, near Bordeaux, which she launched in 2016 thanks to crowdfunding from supporters and a loan from a green bank.

“It felt like I got hit by a train,” Vallée told AFP about the moment she received a call from the Guide Michelin on Thursday informing her of its decision.

In addition to the classic star award, Vallée also won a green star, which Michelin introduced only last year to reward establishments with a strong record for ethical practices.

ONA, which stands for “Origine Non Animale” (“Animal-free origin”), is “the first vegan restaurant in France to win a star”, a Guide Michelin spokeswoman told AFP.

Vallée offered seven dishes on her gourmet menu before she had to close ONA because of Covid-19 restrictions. Her favourite combinations involve pine, boletus mushroom and sake, or celery, tonka and amber ale.

READ ALSO: Why French school dinners are going vegetarian – at least for one day a week

Traditional French banks gave the young chef short shrift when she came to them looking for a loan to get started.

“They said the outlook for veganism and plant-based food was too uncertain,” she told AFP.

The chosen location for her restaurant in the Arcachon basin on the Atlantic coast was also not considered promising enough.

Vallée says she holds no grudge: “Everybody does their job.”

Confident “that I had a few things going for me”, Vallée went on to secure financing through crowdfunding, without the need for collateral, and through Le Nef, a bank that specialises in lending for projects it considers to be ethical.

“This goes to show that nothing is impossible,” she said.

READ ALSO: Michelin unveils Covid-era France picks despite criticism

Vallée admits to having wondered along the way “whether we were good enough because vegetable-based cooking is difficult and innovative”.

But, she added: “The most important thing is to enjoy doing this.”

Although now considered a pioneer for vegan cuisine in France, Vallée said she simply followed in the footsteps of others, singling out the late Jean-Christian Jury, who ran the Mano Verde restaurant in Berlin.

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FOOD & DRINK

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!

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