France: land of croissants, cheese and coq au vin… But can you find beef-less bourguignon or vegan bouillabaisse in France these days? France hardly has a reputation as being a vegan-friendly country. After all, this is the country whose government forces schools to include meat and fish in canteen meals most of the time, effectively making it illegal to serve vegetarian meals at school year-round.However, don’t worry because you CAN survive in France as a vegan! (You might just want to pack meals for your children to take to school if they’re vegan too.)
While the percentage of the population in France that is vegetarian or vegan has remained static at three percent over recent years, there’s been a huge surge of interest in vegetarianism and veganism. At the same time, the number of completely vegetarian restaurants has increased greatly. In fact, the number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in France increased by 37% in the six-month period between October 2015 and April 2016 alone.
It might still be tricky to find a vegan dish at your average French restaurant, but it’s easier than ever to be vegan in France. You just need to know a few tricks, like some common vegan dishes, the kinds of restaurants where you’re more likely to find vegan-friendly fare, how to find ingredients to cook with and how to keep up your social life as a vegan expat in France. We’ll be covering all this and more.
Familiarise yourself with accidentally vegan French food
Vegans in France should be aware of French dishes that are naturally vegan, so they can be on the lookout for these on menus. Some cuisines have more ‘accidentally’ vegan dishes than others. Unfortunately, traditional French fare does not have as many naturally vegan dishes as some other cuisines, but there are a few dishes you can look for.
Expats in France shouldn’t expect restaurants to bend over backward to accommodate them. Veganism and vegetarianism are still relatively unknown concepts in France and may be met with surprise or confusion. French chefs have a reputation for not liking to make modifications or changes to dishes, but some expats swear by stating they have an allergy. They say that while French chefs don’t always understand veganism, they are more than willing to accommodate those with allergies. So, if you tell your waiter that you can’t have meat, eggs or dairy due to allergies, you might just find the chef is willing to make a vegan dish for you.
If you don’t want to try the allergy route or find chefs unwilling to accommodate you, then you can rely on your knowledge of accidentally vegan dishes, like those listed below.
Ratatouille: ratatouille is a stewed vegetable dish from the region of Provence. It is almost always vegan, and is made of a variety of vegetables (usually tomatoes, aubergine, courgette, onion and garlic) stewed in their own juices and garnished with fresh herbs.
Salad (without egg or cheese): most French bistros serve salad. Make sure to ask them to leave the oeuf and fromage off yours, and ask what’s in the dressing. Most French dressing is naturally vegan, as it’s an emulsion of olive oil, vinegar and sometimes mustard. While not exactly a balanced meal, you can round out your French bistro plate with a side of pommes frites (chips/French fries) to go with your salad. Hey, it might not be something you want to eat for every meal, but it’s a good option in a pinch!
Socca: a specialty in Nice, socca is a savoury chickpea flour pancake. It’s a street food, usually eaten as a snack or light meal. It’s normally made with just chickpea flour, water and olive oil.
Poireaux vinaigrette: a classic Parisian bistro dish, this simple starter consists of leeks boiled and served with a vinaigrette. Just make sure the vinaigrette is vegan and that they don’t top the leeks with anything non-vegan like hard-boiled egg.
Baguette: take a trip to your local boulangerie and order some classic French bread. Almost all traditionally made bread is vegan and made fresh daily; just check they haven’t included any non-vegan additives. Some of the fancier flavoured breads might contain non-vegan ingredients.
Gelato: okay, so this isn’t a traditional French dish, but there are plenty of Italian-style gelaterias in France. Traditional Italian gelato often has vegan options, particular the sorbettos, which are usually made with just fruit, sugar and water. So if you’re craving a sweet treat, head to a gelato place and ask if any of their gelatos are vegan! Amorino is a gelato chain with branches in Paris and across all of France, with several clearly-marked vegan sorbets. Try the pistachio sorbet (not the ice cream), which is dairy-free!
Learn some basic French
If you’re planning to live in France for awhile, it’s not a bad idea to learn or brush up on your French. But even if you’re just staying for a short time, it’s worth learning some French phrases, particularly those related to food.
As mentioned above, French restaurants are not always willing to customise dishes, but it’s worth learning how to ask whether food contains certain ingredients – or if they can be left out.
Beyond knowing Je suis végétalien (I am vegan), familiarise yourself with French words for various non-vegan ingredients so you can spot them on ingredients lists in the supermarket, as well as asking if restaurant dishes contain them.
You’ll want to know some basics like:
Produits laitiers (dairy products)
Je ne mange pas… (I do not eat…)
Je ne peux pas manger de… (I can’t eat…)
Embrace multiculturalism and global foods
These days, France is increasingly multicultural, especially Paris. Use this to your advantage and go for naturally vegan-friendly cuisines when eating out. For example, you can often find vegan dishes in Chinese or Thai restaurants (be sure to ask them to leave out any oyster sauce, shrimp paste and/or fish sauce), Indian restaurants (as long as they cook vegetable curries with vegetable oil instead of ghee), Italian restaurants (order pizza without cheese or egg-free dried pasta with a dairy-free tomato sauce) or Middle Eastern (falafel with hummus and salad). Paris is home to a lot of falafel places – just make sure they haven’t added any dairy or egg to the falafel or hummus. While this isn’t common in most places, it seems that a lot of hummus in Paris is made with crème fraiche (soured cream)!
Due to France’s historical connections with North Africa, there are also a lot of restaurants in France serving tagines. Tagines bear the name of the dish they are cooked in. They are a traditional North African couscous dish cooked in a tagine, an earthenware pot. Vegetable tagines are usually vegan, but double-check before ordering one to make sure they’ve cooked it with vegetable oil.
As an expat, rather than a tourist, you’ll have the advantage of having your own home, and presumably your own kitchen (however small a typical Parisian flat’s kitchen may be). So, you can see a side of France that your average traveller won’t see – the inside of a French kitchen.
French supermarkets carry a range of basic ingredients you’ll need to stock your vegan pantry, from fruits and vegetables to beans, grains and oils. Most French supermarkets even carry non-dairy milk, yoghurts and tofu. You may be surprised by the selection you find in even the smallest of supermarkets. Many shops also have a selection of natural, bio/organic and gluten- and sugar-free products, usually grouped together into one section. Some of these are vegan and some are not, so read through the ingredients list carefully (the French you’ve been practicing will come in handy here!). As in other countries, you’ll find some accidentally vegan products on supermarket shelves. Here’s a video with a list of vegan products found in major supermarket chains to get you started.
France is known for its markets, so if you have one nearby you should pay it a visit. You’ll find a selection of seasonal and local fruits and vegetables, often at a better price and of higher quality than supermarkets.
While French supermarkets may stock non-dairy milk and yoghurts, you probably won’t be able to find vegan specialty products on their shelves, like veggie burgers and mock meats, non-dairy cheese and ice cream. Try a health food shop or bio (organic) shop for these products. Bio shops are similar to Whole Foods, and with 50% of Paris residents shopping ‘bio’, you’ll find a big selection of bio shops in Paris and other cities around France as well. In fact, as of 2012, France had over 4,000 bio shops! In addition to smaller local health food shops, there are a few chains of bio supermarkets in France, such as La Vie Claire, Biocoop and Naturalia.
If you’re in Paris, check out Un Monde Vegan (64 Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, 75003), a completely vegan shop selling ‘faux gras’, mock meats, vegan cheeses, snacks, chocolates and more.
Check out your local vegetarian/vegan restaurants
With the surge in vegetarian and vegan restaurants across France, you should be able to find one locally if you live in an urban area. You may have a more difficult time in rural areas, though you never know – you might run into a rural vegetarian restaurant like the Hidden Veggie Kitchen, situated between villages in the Haute Vienne countryside.
Find vegetarian and vegan restaurants near you on Happycow
Happycow also has an app for iPhone and Android ($3.99), which locates vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants near you using GPS. Not only is it great to have a wide selection of vegan options and to support a local vegan business, but you can ask the proprietors for recommendations of other vegan-friendly restaurants, shops and cafes locally. Don’t underestimate how useful it is to have a local vegan connection!
Find vegan friends…and introduce your non-vegan friends to vegan food
When asked what is most difficult about being vegetarian or vegan in France, veggies responded with socialising. In a country where food forms such a central part of culture and social life, it can be difficult to spend time with friends and colleagues without any meat on the table.
Keep a list of vegan-friendly restaurants near you (whether those are vegetarian places, French restaurants with vegan options or a local Indian or Italian restaurant) that you can suggest. Or, have friends over to your house for dinner! Whip up your best meal and introduce your new friends to vegan food.
Alternatively, you could try and meet vegans as you go about making new friends in your new home. Look on Meetup (meetup.com) and Facebook for local vegan groups. It can be great having local vegan friends to meet with at a vegetarian restaurant (without any complaints from your dining partner(s) about having to endure a meat-free meal). It’s also useful having vegetarian and vegan friends because they can answer your pressing questions – like where to find nutritional yeast in Marseille.
Vegan children in France
If you’re moving to France with your children and your children are also vegan, prepare yourself for a lot of eye-rolling (or possibly worse) when you mention your children’s diet. Even vegetarianism may be met with surprise. Many people are taught that children need meat and milk to grow, and may not understand how your children can have their nutritional needs met. Make sure you’ve done your research and can explain how you’re meeting the children’s nutritional needs to the children’s physician if needed.
France recently passed legislation effectively making it illegal for schools to serve completely vegetarian meals full-time in the canteen. Schools are allowed to serve a small percentage of meals with cheese or dairy products as the protein source, and they can never serve all-vegan fare. So, you’ll need to make sure your children bring lunch to school. Other children might not understand why your child isn’t partaking in the school lunch, or what veganism is, so make sure you’ve explained to your children in an age-appropriate way. Your child might feel left out from school meals, but if you make them delicious and fun lunches, then they might just find that their classmates are jealous instead. Looking for vegan lunchbox inspiration? Check out this list of easy, plant-based vegan school lunch ideas.