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‘My vegetarian crêpe was covered in crab and lobster’: Stories of going meat-free in France

Being vegetarian or vegan in France is not always easy and not always understood. While this can be frustrating it also leads to some pretty memorable and funny experiences a our readers attest to in their accounts here.

'My vegetarian crêpe was covered in crab and lobster': Stories of going meat-free in France
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Boeuf bourguignon, coq à vin, confit de canard – all classic French foods with one thing in common: meat. The French are known for taking immense pride in their cultural cuisine, much of which involves meat…but what if you are in France and you do not eat meat? We asked our readers to tell us about their most memorable experiences being vegetarian and vegan in France.

For Penny in Annecy it was hard to come up with only one “worst” experience:

“Just one? Asking for a pizza without cheese. First time it came out with cheese, I sent it back. Second time, yep still got cheese, I gave up and picked it off and ate the crust. Same restaurant, not being allowed to order a spaghetti with tomato sauce that was on the kid’s menu. Only option for adults- a green salad and fries – what I call the vegan’s delight as it is often the only thing I can order on any menu. Five years later I tried this restaurant again, the waiter happily asked the kitchen if I could have a pasta with tomato sauce – no problem. Things are better than they were!” explained Penny.

Penny’s sentiment that things are improving was echoed by over half of our respondents (66 percent) who reported that finding vegan and vegetarian options in France is, indeed, “getting better.”

A graph showing respondents’ feelings on vegan and vegetarian options in France (credit: The Local)

But does this mean that all of the advice columns and blogs dedicated to ‘surviving in France as a vegetarian’ are wrong? Well, the short answer is no. Almost a quarter of readers still feel like it’s not worth even bothering eating out because French restaurants do not offer “good vegan or vegetarian food,” for a number of reasons.

Flexible interpretations of vegetarianism

Many readers had one negative experience in common: restaurants and cafes failing to understand what falls under the umbrella of vegetarian, and more importantly, what does not. Several of our readers recounted their experiences finding some surprise bacon bits (lardons) in their supposedly meat-free salads: “After explaining to a waiter that I was vegetarian and being offered and accepting the proposed salad I was not happy to find it covered in lardons. When I queried this I was told that they were a garnish!” said Chris Welch, who lives in Strasbourg. 

Meanwhile, for others there were a lot of misconceptions about seafood. “Many french restaurants still think vegetarians eat fish!” explained Penny, who lives in Annecy, France. Another reader remembered ordering a vegetarian salad and then finding prawns scattered over it.

One couple had a pretty serious seafood-being-vegetarian miscommunication when they arrived in Bretagne:

“My wife and I arrived late at a town in Côtes d’Armor and found a crêperie open. We asked the proprietor if she could make a vegetarian crêpe, and she replied with an enthusiastic “Bien sûr !” The crêpes that came out almost 30 minutes later were a work of art: piled high with a colourful assortment of crab, lobster, and oysters. We couldn’t pretend they were OK; she stood and waited to watch us enjoy her masterpieces. We told her as nicely as possible that we couldn’t eat them, and she instructed us at length on the difference in meaning between the words “végétarien” and “végétalien.”

To make up for her disappointment, we bought about 50€ worth of her jams sauces, on display by the register,” said Daniel New. 

The proprietor’s comment might be a tad confusing, as the primary difference between “végétarien” and “végétalien” is that the former translates to vegetarian in English, and the latter is the formal French way of saying ‘vegan,’ though most French people just stick with végan these days. So either way, the couple probably should not have discovered seafood in their crêpes.

After this experience, Daniel New’s advice is always to “check your food before you dig in, to be sure the chef doesn’t regard poulet as a vegetable.”

Geography

A lot of our readers explained that geography plays a big role in whether or not you will be able to find good vegan and vegetarian food. Not surprisingly, small towns are trickier than big cities. When asked whether eating out in France as a vegetarian or vegan, most people replied “only in big cities.” One couple that lives in Bayonne explained that they have had to adapt: they cook vegan at home and eat vegetarian when they are out, in order to have more options:

“The Saturday market is a vegan paradise,” they explained. “To have a social life and meals out with French friends you must still eat butter and cheese. American vegans will be annoyed by this but we also believe in eating sustainably which means eating local ingredients. Lots of ingredients used in vegan cooking aren’t easily found in small French towns (eh hem, avocados).” 

One reader, Shane Routledge, said that he has found it harder in the South than in other parts of the country, which could be due to the region being more rural generally. His tips for veggies or vegans in France? “Just hope there are places where you are that have entered the 21st century.”

Member comments

  1. The really nice thing about the recent poke bowl craze is that wherever you are in France, there’s now always at least somewhere you can go to eat moderately healthy vegetarian food and not just subsist off pizza or French tacos.

  2. I’m not a vegetarian but remember when I first moved to Paris in 1998 noting that it would be impossible to eat as one. I recall seeing *one* vegetarian restaurant then. Things have certainly changed, including an old (french) friend of my wife who tries to stick to a vegetarian diet. I can see how outside of Paris staying vegetarian remains a struggle.

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FOOD & DRINK

Climate change could take snails off the menu in France

The Federation of Conserved Foods, a French industry group that represents 139 food manufacturers, has warned that the snails could soon become a thing of the past.

Climate change could take snails off the menu in France

Hunter gatherers in a land that was yet to be named France were eating snails as far back as the 8,000 years ago. Today the country goes through about 30,000 tonnes of them every year. 

But the future of this delicacy does not look bright according to the Federation of Conserved Foods (la Fiac). 

“All the signals are dire,” it said.

“While the harvests in recent years were already insufficient, the quantities will still not be enough in 2022.” 

The reasons for this are multiple, but there are two that stand out in particular. 

The first is climate change.

“The gathering [of snails] this year was strongly disrupted because of erratic variations in temperatures,” warns La Fiac. 

“The late persistence of cold temperatures followed by the brutal arrival of heat led to a rapid spurt of grass growth, quickly making it difficult to gather snails and reducing the quantities collected.”

As the climate continues to destabilise traditional weather patterns, this issue will only get worse. 

Labour supply 

The majority of snails consumed in France are harvested, wild, in the forests of central Europe and the Balkans. 

Wages have not kept up with soaring levels of inflation in this part of the world so many have abandoned the snail harvesting trade in pursuit of more profitable activities. 

The lack of staff means that French importers cannot outsource as much of the processing work to the countries where the snails are collected. This in turn has a knock-on effect on prices. 

Rising fuel costs, packaging costs and butter costs are also translating into ever greater snail prices on menus. 

Around 1,500 people work in the snail industry in France. Their future looks bleak. 

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