Always the English!
For a vegetarian in France, life is difficult. Deborah Jackson finds a way around the land of meat
Wednesday 06 November 1996
There was the enormous bouillabaisse served up on a Camargue campsite when I was a teenager, in which the lobsters were still struggling to escape the stew. Or the infamous calmar incident, which I thought was pasta in tomato sauce, before discovering a squid's tentacle lodged between my teeth. A mistranslation once persuaded me to sample sheep's brains - not the kind of surprise to spring on a first date. And if you are really squeamish, may I suggest you avoid inquiring, as I did once over dinner, what exactly constitutes an andouille sausage.
From daunting delicacies like snails and frogs' legs, to inedibly bleu raw steak, the French have meat all carved up. This can present a problem for the travelling Brit. Those who eat meat soon learn to order their beef well done, but even then it emerges in its own little pool of blood. And what about the growing number of us trying to be vegetarian?
I was off meat, as was my working companion, when we took a summer job at a hotel in Provence in 1986. As holiday couriers, we were expected to dine with our clients once a week. It caused apoplexies among the kitchen staff when we asked for a meat-free meal. The chef sneered as he decorated our plates with five haricot beans and a head of fennel. The waiter warned us we would starve and dreadful things would happen to our livers if we did not get some animal blood inside us soon.
Last summer, on a camping trip to France with six children, we were reminded of this zealously carnivorous attitude. Two of the children were vegetarian, except for the occasional fish finger. So we trotted down to the giant superstore E LeClerc, 10 times the size of our local Sainsbury's, to find something for the barbecue. I spent so long peering fruitlessly into the freezer section my nose was getting frostbite, but I couldn't find the vegetarian range anywhere. No veggie cutlets, soya minces, meatless sausages or Linda McCartney boxes in sight.
I finally wound up at the information desk, two miles away at the other end of the store. "Excuse me, please," I said, "where do you keep your veggie burgers?" except it was in French, and not knowing the word for veggie burgers I gave a graphic description of the objects we sought. The assistant looked superior. "We don't stock anything like that in here," he said. "But what do vegetarians eat in France?" I asked. He couldn't possibly help me with such an esoteric question.
There aren't many people in the world as meat-bound as the French. You can feast on falafel in Israel, sate yourself on salad in California, have hearty amounts of hummus in Greece. Even the red-blood devouring Italians can knock up a Napoletana sauce.
When Uncle David, my strict vegetarian brother-in-law, came to join us in France one year on a camping expedition, my heart sank. Where would we go for our meal out? We found ourselves seated, hopefully, in an Italian restaurant where, surely, his dietary needs would be understood. But the waiter was less than understanding. When asked if he could throw a few extra vegetables on to Uncle David's plate, he came over all Marie Antoinette, shouting "Let them eat salad! It's always the English," he wailed, "who cause trouble with their emerdante impolitesse!"
We took our impoliteness to another restaurant, the very French Les Navigateurs, where Uncle David again failed to impress the waitress with a request for a vegetarian meal. She could not possibly bring him a plate of vegetables. It wasn't on the set menu. In the end, I called over the manageress.
"My brother-in-law is vegetarian. He does not eat meat. But he would like to eat tonight. He would like the Fr54 menu - crudites, followed by the 'turkey with green beans, white beans and chips without the turkey'. Please." She smiled the smile of one who understands but will never actually empathise. At least it wasn't a sneer. And Uncle David got his beans.
I don't think the French are likely to latch on to the craze for non- animal meals in the near future. This year, in a Brittany supermarket, we were offered langoustines and crabs in their own fresh running water, piled on top of each other like pebbles. Even more distressing was the sight of freshly caught prawns, expiring slowly on the chill cabinet, their claws waving sadly with each fading breath. Fresh as we may like our fish, it's not the sort of thing that would go down a storm in Waitrose.
My advice for vegetarian Francophiles is to camp or self-cater. You can shop in the market, stuff yourself on as much local produce as you can chop and no one will tell you you'll die of malnutrition. If you plan to eat out, explain your needs very carefully, and let them believe you are playing their game. The French have an ideological difficulty with vegetarian food. Steak-and-chips-without-steak, while they may not approve of it, is at least a concept they can graspn
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