Cautious meat-eaters opt for 'le vegiburger'

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

"It's vegetarian," the waiter said, saying the word very slowly, syllable by syllable. "That means it's got no meat in it. Is that what you want, madame?' This was the less than enthusiastic sales pitch for the le vegiburger, the new departure for Hippopotamus, the French restaurant chain famous for its charcoal-grilled meat.

The arrival of the vegiburger at Hippotamus was planned, the management says, long before the beef scare. But its launch was brought forward a couple of weeks, expanding the restaurants' non-beef options, and the printed menu does not yet recognise the fact. I scanned it several times before establishing that the vegiburger merited only a discreet notice on the table, listing the alternatives to beef: leg of lamb, grilled pork, vegiburger, salad Nicoise, salmon.

Hippopotamus says that it introduced the non-meat burger to cater for what seemed a growing number of mainly younger customers who ordered a salad or a combination plate, then proceeded to pick out the bits of meat and leave them tidily on the side. Even at Hippopotamus, which advertises itself as a "meat lovers' haven", vegetarianism was starting to be noticed.

The trend was small but, in a country where a meal is often not considered a meal without a decent piece of meat, significant. According to official statistics, meat consumption in France declined by almost 3 per cent in 1994, an unprecedented fall.

Now, the beef crisis is pushing vegetarianism further into respectability. It commands a new interest, if not respect. Over the past two weeks, as French ministers, meat wholesalers and butchers have been trying to talk up the languishing beef market, the few vegetarian restaurants in Paris and other big cities have registered a 30 per cent increase in custom. Newspapers and magazines have started printing vegetarian recipes. People are talking about "alternatives".

At Hippopotamus, though, the waiters and customers seem far from convinced. Once identified and selected, le vegiburger is treated as honorary meat. "Rare or medium?" the waiter asked. "Sauce?"

I stopped him. "What sort of sauce comes with a vegiburger?" "Any of the usual ones: bearnaise, shallot, black pepper ..." When it arrived, "medium", the vegiburger was chargrilled, slightly piquant, with a discernible nut content, soya, some tomato perhaps - but still an unfamiliar presence between the two halves of a French sesame bun.

Mine was the only vegiburger in sight in the crowded restaurant. To my left a couple ordered plates of beef carpaccio; two beef tartars arrived further down; three hamburgers (rare) behind me, and two large steaks (extra rare) to the right. Vegetarian awareness may be growing, slowly. But meat-eating is not yet out of fashion.

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