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.”
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.
In last night’s instalment of eating vegetarian food in SW France 😭🙃 pic.twitter.com/0eo78ziISL
— Prof Christopher Jackson (@seis_matters) October 25, 2019
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.
Heh, I was a keynote speaker this time in France. I checked in advance they could cater for vegetarians. My lunch was … some chopped lettuce.
— Dr Laura Molloy (@LM_HATII) October 25, 2019
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.”
I studied in France for a bit and the upside was that the cafeteria refused to charge me for an actual meal because I wasn’t having any 🍗…piles of 🥦🥕🥒 for €1
— Sapna Marwaha 💙 (She/her) (@sapna_R_I) October 25, 2019
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.”
It is safe to say that I am not sure how long this #vegetarian thing is going to survive whilst living in France 😅🤣
— Émilie 🇺🇦 (@irreductible_Em) December 25, 2020
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:
Remembering the time when I visited Languedoc and as a vegetarian I was given a plate of plain pasta with a whole crab on top 🦀https://t.co/WaiiFLM16b
— Rachel Loxton (@RachLoxton) May 9, 2022
“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).”
People where I lived in France constantly tried to feed me chicken and fish when I said I was a vegetarian. 😂
— Jamie Lynn Kitten (@jamielynncrofts) May 16, 2022
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.”