A-Z of etiquette
In part eight of our insider’s guide to life in France, Mark Sayers explains what the French understand by ‘vegetarian’ and dissects the nation’s beautiful language
The penultimate installment of our guide to life in France
Although France and the UK are separated by a mere 35km stretch of water, moving to France sometimes involves more of a culture shock than many newbies expect. In this A-Z series we take a light-hearted look at the quirky side of life in France in a guide that will be handy for anyone contemplating the move, as well as those keen to blend in with the locals!
Vis for Vegetarian When we first arrived in France nearly 15 years ago, saying you were a vegetarian was akin to saying that you were from the planet Mars. Admitting that you were happy to go through life never sampling the delights of a succulent pink Limousin steak, melt-in-the-mouth foie gras or the salty sweetness of an oyster was met with astonishment or disdain, sometimes both.
In the case of a friend of ours who came to visit, denial was the default setting. We carefully explained that she did not eat meat at all and were delighted that the waiter was happy to pass the information on to the chef who would come up with a suitable offering. An appetising stack of smoky grilled vegetables was duly produced and our friend tucked in happily – only to find some pork skulking in their midst. We called the waiter over to point out that there was meat in the dish to which he nonchalantly replied: “Yes, but not much!”
From discussions with other French veggies it seems this is not an isolated incident. For many French chefs bacon, ham and fish are all widely considered to be suitable vegetarian fodder. Some even see nothing wrong with removing the meat from a stew and renaming it ‘vegetable’ stew! Now I am a confirmed meat eater (although trying to cut down), but even I know that that’s not the point!
Until now, the choice for our vegetarian brethren has been limited to eggs, eggs and more eggs in their various forms, or one or more vegetables dumped unceremoniously onto a plate, sometimes raw. But finally it seems that the times they are a-changing. The website Happy Cow ( happycow.net) now lists 2,486 vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants in France.
Even Perpignan, hardly at the vanguard of the restaurant (or indeed any!) scene in France, now has a choice of vegetarian restaurants as well as one that is entirely vegan. Non-meat eaters are getting a better choice than they did but it is still not difficult to find a French person for whom the term vegetarian simply does not compute.
15 years ago, saying you were a vegetarian was akin to saying that you were from the planet Mars