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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

Rosé, spritz and pressé: 5 things to drink in France this summer

Summer in France means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, works on the Paris Metro - but it also ushers in rosé and spritz season. Here's some of the best options to drink in France this summer.

Rosé, spritz and pressé: 5 things to drink in France this summer

Rosé

Wine is a pretty popular product all year round, but as soon as the sunny days arrive, the shelves of your local cave or supermarket will be filled with rosé.

Rosé wines sometimes get a bad reputation abroad, but there are plenty of excellent vins rosé in France, especially the ones from the rosé heartland of Provence, the majority of which are dry, not sweet.

It’s often served as a pre-dinner drink (an apéro) but it also pairs well with food so you’ll see it on restaurant wine lists. 

Rosé wine is not a mix of red wine and white wine, instead it’s made from red wine grapes but using a different technique in which the skin of the grapes is removed earlier, meaning that the skins do not impart their red colour to the wine. Rosé is in fact the oldest wine type in France – the ancient Romans produced wine using the rosé technique in Provence. 

Spritzes

If you’re not a rosé fan, why not try a spritz as the temperature rises? Spritz refers to any drink that is a combination of wine (usually sparkling wine), soda water and an apéritif drink. They’re served long with lots of ice so make a refreshing and not too strong drinks option in the summer.   

The classic spritz is the Apérol spritz – made with Apérol, sparkling wine and soda water, usually garnished with a slice of orange. Although ubiquitous in France, Apérol is actually Italian (its name comes from aperitivo, the Italian word for pre-dinner drinks).

There are lots of other options though – Campari Spritz, with the bitter-but-delicious Italian Campari.

Lillet spritz – the French aromatised wine Lillet is often served as a spritz, garnished with mint or cucumber. 

Saint-Germain spritz – the elderflower liqueur Saint-Germain is often found served as a spritz in the summer, garnished with fruit.  

Beer

French beer culture is rapidly changing and there are now more and more options available if you want to drink beer in France.

The traditional demi (half litre) of French of Belgian beers are still widely available, but craft beers are also really taking off, especially in northern France.

A combination of imports from the UK and US, plus an ever-increasing number of small craft breweries in France mean there are lots of craft ales on offer now, from IPA to stout. It’s also getting more common to serve beer as une pinte (a pint).

READ ALSO How France became a nation of beer lovers

Non-alcoholic beers are also increasingly common in France and most of the big-name brands such as Kronenbourg, Grimbergen and Pelforth now have a zero-alcohol option. Ask for une bière sans alcool, or if you want want a summer shandy (beer mixed with lemonade) ask for a panaché.

Citron pressé

If you’re looking for something non-alcoholic, the classic pressé is a good option.

The most common option is a citron (lemon) pressé, but many cafés have other fruit options. Keep in mind this isn’t exactly a lemonade – if you’re looking for this you can ask for a citronade

The classic pressé is served as a neat squeezed juice, served with a jug of water and (in the case of the lemon) a couple of sachets of sugar, so that you can mix the juice to your own taste.

But aware that soft drinks are not necessarily cheaper than alcoholic ones in France, and a citron pressé will often be more expensive than buying a beer or a glass of wine.

Water

Of course staying hydrated is vital as the temperature rises, and there’s no better option for your health than water.

In cafés and restaurants if you simply ask for ‘water’ you’re likely to be brought mineral water and this can be more expensive than beer or wine, especially in tourist areas.

If you just want tap water ask for une carafe d’eau or un pichet d’eau, which is free.

Tap water in France is entirely safe to drink and the city of Paris is currently running a campaign called Je choisi l’eau de Paris (I choose Paris tap water) to encourage people to cut down on plastic waste by ditching bottled water and drinking tap water instead.

If you see a Je choisi l’eau de Paris sticker in the window of any business, it means you can go in and get your water bottle filled up for free.

READ ALSO Six things to know about tap water in France

Most French cities also have a network of drinking fountains where you can stay hydrated for free during the summer months. 

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