More Than Meat! French Vegetarian Food

The French love their meat – that the classic steak frites (steak and fries), served rare, is often referred to as the national dish tells you all you need to know! Most main dishes are focussed on meat and fish (and plenty of it!), and with animal protein-heavy classics like bœuf bourguignon and coq au vin at the heart of the national cuisine vegetarians can worry if they will be able to find anything to eat at all when they visit France. But if you are a vegetarian traveler, don’t despair! Like the rest of Western Europe, France is well-used to the idea of vegetarianism (whether for ethical, cultural or health reasons), and in fact many French classics are meat-free.

Cheese and egg-based dishes are staples of French cuisine, and the French also serve large, luxurious salads as main dishes. You will find as many vegetarian restaurants in the big cities as you would in large urban areas at home, and the crêperies and pizzerias, found on almost every French street, are good bets for non-meat eaters. France’s colonial past means that you will also find many Oriental restaurants (particularly Vietnamese ones), which serve a good range of vegetable-based dishes.

Wherever you choose to eat, don’t be afraid to make your dietary requirements clear, particularly since some otherwise vegetarian dishes may be made with a meat-based stock or garnished with lardons (bacon pieces). If you feel confident enough with your culinary vocabulary, ask your waiter ‘Quels sont les ingrédients?‘ (‘What are the ingredients?’), or simply say ‘Je suis végétarienvégétarienne‘ (the word takes the extra ‘ne‘ if you are female) or ‘Je ne mange pas la viande/ les fruits de mer/ les poissons‘ (‘I don’t eat meat/ seafood/ fish’). Since the French take hospitality seriously, your needs are most likely to be accommodated with pleasure. Here are some delicious French vegetarian dishes, along with some links to more ideas for meals to make at home.

Potage Printanier

This spring vegetable soup makes the most of delicate baby vegetables – otherwise known as primeurs   – which are the first vegetables of the season. With the addition of fresh spring herbs, this is a very fresh-tasting soup and is an ideal vegetarian starter. Most French soups are made with a meat stock, so it is worth checking if this is the case when ordering any soup in a restaurant (the otherwise safe-sounding French onion soup is always made with a rich beef stock, so beware!), and potage printanier can similarly be made with beef stock or vegetable stock. Carrots, turnip, celery, leeks and potatoes are diced finely, sautéed and cooked in the stock (along with some fresh parsley) before being puréed and served with crème fraîche. Peas, lettuce, greens, onions and even egg may also appear in potage printanier, and it is a very flexible recipe, as the many versions listed at Cooking Steampunk show.

Omelette Végétarienne

Omelets are a French classic. They are both easy and quick to make, as well as being extremely versatile (a point proven by the fact that the French cookery bible, Larousse Gastronomique, lists over sixty different omelet recipes!). Omelets are a great vegetarian option as they do not have any meat-based element in their basic ingredients (cream, butter, salt and pepper are the only usual additions), and omelets listed on a menu can be easily adapted for vegetarian guests since they are made from scratch to order.

To make a basic omelet take eight eggs, add seasoning and beat with a little light cream. Melt some butter in a heavy skillet and heat the pan thoroughly before adding the eggs. Stir with a fork and allow to begin to set. You can then add your fillings – anything from Gruyère cheese to sea urchin – either mixing them with the egg to make a flavored omelet, or simply placing them inside and folding to make a filled omelet. The French way is to leave the center of the omelet underdone, giving it a creamy, rather than rubbery consistency. You might like to try omelette Argenteuil, made with buttered asparagus tips, or omelette à la verdurière, made with sorrel, lettuce, parsley, chervil and tarragon, or omelette Parmentier, made with finely diced potatoes (test your French by looking at the range of vegetarian omelet recipes here. Served with a salad or sometimes frites, French omelets are a cut above the rest!

Potée aux Lentilles Végétarienne

Lentils are an important source of protein in a vegetarian diet, but they often get a bad rap as being tasteless and mushy. Not so in France, where red, yellow, green and – the most prized of all – puy lentils, are used in a variety of gourmet dishes, from soups to salads to purées. But lentils can often be the star of the show themselves, and a potée aux lentilles végétarienne is a true simple pleasure.

Take some puy lentils, known as ‘poor man’s caviar’ due to the sumptuous flavor they gain from the volcanic soil of the Velay region where they grow, and boil for two minutes. Fry some finely diced onion, carrot, celery and garlic (along with a clove and a bay leaf) in butter before adding the lentils and some vegetable stock. Cook until almost all the stock has evaporated before adding a little cognac and butter for extra richness. This can be eaten on its own or with a poached egg on top. This basic recipe can be adapted with a range of vegetables and is a hearty, tasty and nutritious dish. Red lentils (lentilles corail) are also very versatile – check out the recipes here.

Salade de Chèvre Chaud

With up to 400 different types of cheese, France’s cheese-based meals are a great choice for vegetarians. One classic is this goat’s cheese salad. Typically French and typically delicious, it is also a substantial dish and is a great main course. You’ll find this on almost every restaurant and café menu in France, but it is also very easy to make at home.

Simply toast some slices of baguette and top with rounds of goat’s cheese (the little individual goat’s cheeses, known as crottin de chèvre, work well), before grilling them so the cheese melts slightly. Make up a salad with a basic vinaigrette (simply mix together one part white wine vinegar with three parts olive oil, adding some salt, pepper and a little mustard), sprinkle on some chopped walnuts and minced shallot, and place the cheesy croutons on top.

There are plenty of other classic vegetarian salad recipes to be discovered, from salade gourmande (made with green beans, asparagus and sliced truffle), to salade Montfermeil (using salsify, artichokes, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs) – check some of them out.

These are just a few of the vegetarian delights France has to offer, but they show the delicious diversity of the country’s meat-free cuisine. Discover it for yourself and you’ll find that French food has much more to offer than just meat!