In the past year we have visited France four times, and each time we went to a different city. It’s a beautifully diverse country, with each city evoking its own charm, history and culture. As French territory and borders have changed quite dramatically over European history, and many of France’s regions historically being isolated from Paris and responsible for its own laws and custom, each city seemed to offer something different. In the north, we stayed in Lille, a quiet city close to the Belgian border, which maintains many features of Flemish architecture. In the south-east, close to the Swiss border, we stayed in Lyon, which is situated in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, between both the Rhône and Saône rivers. Despite Lyon being the third largest city in France, the atmosphere is a total contrast to the final two areas we visited, Nice and Paris. Nice, situated on the French Riviera and close to the Italian border, and not formally part of France until the later 18th Century, has an atmosphere and architectural feel similar to that of many places on the French and Italian Mediterranean coastline. A popular global holiday destination, thanks to its beautiful turquoise waters and sub-tropical climate, for us, Nice had a relaxing resort-like feel, more than a metropolitan city. Paris, on the other hand, transported us back to earth with its chaotic vastness, but like so many have said before, evoked a charm, like a quiet village, that captivates new and old visitors alike.
I’m not afraid to admit that I believed the misconception that French cuisine and vegetarianism are dualistic enemies. But it’s the 21st Century, and such misconceptions, like in many countries, have been debunked. With the growing acceptance of vegetarianism in the past decade, it would be more unusual to not find a veggie option on a menu, and at the very least with local knowledge, be able to negotiate your way to a meat-free meal.
In actual fact, I was surprised to find that in local kitchens and supermarkets alike, the French offer a wide variety of innovative meat-free food. Below, I have reviewed each city on the food we ate, and not necessarily always on the regions top rated cuisine (although I have tried as much as possible to explore local food).
Our trip to Lyon was one of a kind. We were privileged enough to be part of the Lichfield, Limburg and Saint-Foy-lés-Lyon Twinning Association, which has annual meetings held alternately in each city. While, of course, we wanted to explore what Lyon as a city had to offer in terms of vegetarian and vegan food, we spent the majority of our time being hosted by other twinning members, which, in hindsight, was a much more valuable and cherished experience.
Amidst all the bread, cheese and wine one could hope for, we were treated to three incredibly beautiful, traditional French dishes. The first of which was the quennele. Served in a long, deep pan, this dish was an omelette-dough hybrid, baked with a rich cheese sauce, and served with salad and bread. It wasn’t until further research that I realised the quennele is a Lyonnaise regional speciality. Although it was a standalone delight to eat, it can also be served with a variety of vegetables.
Our second meal was clearly colonial in origin, as we had Mediterranean vegetables, such as courgettes, peppers, artichokes and potatoes with cous cous, served in a tagine with a beautiful aroma of North African spices.
Admittedly, our third meal was a huge three-course banquet for all of the guests of the twinning, and being the only vegetarians among hundreds, our main consisted entirely of potato gratin and fried garlic mushrooms. By this point I was so drunk on the table red, I was beyond caring and thoroughly enjoyed all three courses anyway.
Another regional eat which I have tried so hard to find in other parts of France and have struggled (if you can help me, please get in touch) is the Lyonnaise pink praline tart. After the créme brulee, the BEST dessert in the world. The almonds are melted down in icing sugar, with pink/red food colouring, and then blended up, covered in yet more thick icing sugar, and baked in a traditional Lyonnaise pastry. The filling tastes just like white chocolate (and I would be tempted to add some grated white chocolate on top for extra texture and colour) and it is an incredibly sweet dessert. There are recipes online, and you will find them in the window of most patisseries in Lyon’s city, but anywhere else I visited in France, absolutely no chance.
And amongst all of that, we still had time to check out two local cafés in the city, which served some incredible vegetarian and vegan food.
Against the Grain:
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Upon arriving in Lyon, this was our first stop. Admittedly, due to the opening times of French cafés and bars, by the time we arrived in the late afternoon, the abundance of food hand-written on their menu was all gone, and we could only order their pasta dish served with smoky, firm tofu. All that suggested to me was how busy the place must be, and how so many people keep this entirely vegan cafe going by cleaning them out of their prepared meals each and every day. Amazing.
Le Tout Petit Cafe:
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On our last day exploring the city, we visited this café, which, while not entirely vegan, had a variety of fresh vegan brownies and cakes, and offered a killer burger! Their special was a tofu salad served with a creamy coconut peanut sauce, which is up there with one of my favourite things to eat.
Visiting Lille in December is something all the tour and holiday operators advertise. Its mix of Flemish and French architecture, a traditional Christmas market and only two hours from London via Eurostar make it a top spot for Brits to visit for a short getaway around Christmas time. We couldn’t pass down the opportunity for another trip to France just two months after our first, and yes, I went hunting everywhere for the Lyonnaise praline tart.
Instead, though, we stumbled across other regional foods of Lille, most notably The Welsh Rarebit, which needs no introduction. Consisting of a beer-battered slice of bread, drenched, and I mean drenched, in a thick, melting cheese fondue, (and traditionally ham, but was made vegetarian for us thanks to the kind chefs) and topped with a fried egg. Le Welsh Classique completely blew our minds. To the point where all I need to do is show a picture of said Welsh to the party of people we went with, and they get sudden flash-backs to the absolute calorific monstrosity that was placed before us that night. Although I radically disagree, and would happily go back for another, the three others are unanimous that the Welsh is something best done once, and never, ever again. I’ll let you decide for yourselves.
Opting for something a little lighter on the stomachs was an obvious choice after the Welsh, and I spotted this chain in Lyon and wanted to give it a go! The menu had a ton of vegetarian options, and most notably had a French take by offering Nutella and either strawberry or banana sushi rolled in chopped peanuts.
This ‘traditional English pub’ had great reviews online, notably for their wide range of beers, spirits and cocktails. Although not located in the typical tourist-friendly area, I suspect this pub to be popular with tourists, simply because of its diverse menu based on a variety of European cuisines. We tried two of their vegetarian flammekueche (or tarte flamée) which is essentially a pizza but uses thinly rolled pastry instead of dough for the toppings to be placed on. We went with the three cheese, using mozzarella, emmental and brie with tomato, and the Mediterranean inspired toppings, including tomato, pesto and black olives. And then of course, a trip to France wouldn’t be complete (for me at least) without a créme brûlée.
And if you’re looking for something cheap and simple to eat when exploring Northern France and the Flemish region in general, then look no further than the abundance of nearby friteries. They have an array of sauces, some of which I’d never even heard of, so we went for the samourai, which is a spicy mayonnaise that I am now totally obsessed with.
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Admittedly, the entire time we were in Nice, we didn’t eat any main meals in a restaurant. We were towards the end of our Interrail trip, and had rented an apartment with a kitchen. I cook all our meals from scratch at home, and after weeks of eating in restaurants, we really missed the comfort of home-cooked food. I was tempted, therefore, to leave Nice out of this post, but then I realised that it was perhaps even more helpful to show how I was able to make food similar to what we’d eat at home using ingredients picked up entirely from supermarkets such as Carrefore and Casino.
During our time in Nice, naturally, we took a day trip to Monaco. We decided to buy a fresh baguette and fill it with cheese, and raid the supermarket for an abundance of other snacks and foods (mainly biscuits and crisp flavours we wouldn’t find at home). We also visited a couple of organic supermarkets that had entire fridges stocked full of mock-meats, many of which were vegan-friendly. Considering how pleased and satisfied I am with the selection back in the UK, I was shocked to see that France actually had a lot more variety. With that in mind, I’m confident that we would find it more than easy to live in this beautiful country long-term.
Paris was the last leg of our Interrail tour. I was quite sad to be leaving Nice, because the weather was perfect and it was nice after so many countries and cities and train journeys to be in a calming, relaxing holiday destination. We were looking forward to Paris, but it was bittersweet being our final city. We also didn’t know whether we’d like it there or not. Somehow, Paris was a city we’d both never chosen to visit prior to this trip. People in Lyon told us that Paris was unlike anywhere else in France, and perhaps the least “French” part of the country (their words, not mine), but they were right. Paris was different, notably due to its size and popularity with thousands of tourists every day. But one cannot judge a city in its entirety after one weekend visit. And despite all the mixed reviews and feelings, both of us concluded that there were so many elements of Paris that we found to be wonderful, and we would visit again one day.
Hard Rock Cafe:
For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I collect Hard Rock Cafe shot glasses for my stepdad whenever I visit a new country. I know, I broke one of the ultimate rules that the late Anthony Bourdain insisted to stick to, but after over 5 hours of train travel, and my cousin (who we were meeting from the UK) getting lost in the city and craving some comfort food, we decided, for the first time ever, to dine in the Hard Rock Cafe. For me, the veggie main menu options are poor to say the least, so we opted for the nachos, mac and cheese with some fries. The below pic was between three of us, and before we knew the portion sizes, we ere actually talked out of ordering a third portion of nachos by the waiter (it was happy hour – so no judgement!) If there’s one positive to say about Hard Rock Cafe, its the portion size/price ratio. I expected small plates and high prices but was pleasantly surprised. Everything tasted really good, too.
Les Saveurs De l’Orient:
For our second evening meal, we wondered the streets looking for something to jump out at us. I was honestly trying to follow Bourdain’s advice here, because I usually research restaurants and have a good couple of choices lined up before I visit anywhere. But being in other company (and might I add, meat-eating company), it was harder to make a solid decision and I wanted to be spontaneous and inspired. We decided on a Lebanese and Moroccan restaurant, as I was intrigued once again by the colonial North-African and West-Asian influences that prevail in Parisian kitchens. To start, we ordered Sambousek cheese and rakakat cheese, which were both different varieties of deep-fried pastry filled with feta, mozarella and mint. We then ordered a vegetable tagine and vegetarian couscous to share between two of us, with chickpeas, bread and dips accompanying the dishes. This restaurant is located just off bustling Haussmann Boulevard, but for a Saturday night, regretedbly quiet. I would contend that if you’re a vegetarian in that part of Paris, go!
La Créme de Paris:
I think it would have been rude not to indulge ourselves and order a salted caramel crépe at La Créme de Paris. The crépe was a good size, incredibly filling and the sauce was rich, leaving us full for much of the afternoon. If you’re after a light snack, consider sharing between two. All food, the pancakes, waffles, smoothies and milkshakes on offer here are made from scratch in an open kitchen, and you can always expect a crowd of non-purchasing tourists standing outside watching the pancake and waffle-iron magic happen as the chefs perform by the front entrance.
For our final dinner, during our tour of the wonderful Monmarte, we continued on the crépe hype and my cousin chose one of the local creperies on the main market square. Cheap, easy to find and simple. It also doesn’t look the most beautiful or appealing meal, but it was freshly made and tasted great. The home-made cheese sauce topped onto our fries was also a winner.
In all, one blog post, four small trips to France could never cover the array of dishes and cuisine on offer for vegetarian travellers to the country. It has, however, solidified in my mind that France has a wonderfully diverse range of food, and no one is ever too far away from a delicious vegetarian or vegan meal.