Cycling in France as a vegetarian

Cycling in France hasn’t always been easy for vegetarians – we have these tips to help make it a bit easier.

Vegetarian restaurant in Paris

Le Végétarien at 65 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, Paris. Photo: Tim Venchus

If you know a great vegetarian restaurant in France, please share it in the comments below. Any other vegetarian or vegan advice also welcome!

Meat-loving rural France was once a no-go zone for vegetarians, with anyone not eager to wolf down steak frites at lunch time destined for daily doses of uninspiring tomato pasta or cheese baguettes.Things have changed a lot in recent years – especially in Paris. Nowadays, even outside the main cities it’s possible for vegetarians on two wheels to get enough tasty calories to power them through the day. It’s not always easy, but it IS possible.

Peter Quaife, who together with his partner Natalie Lynch, runs a vegetarian B&B, Le Chavel Blanc, that caters for cyclists near the Aveyron Gorge. We asked Peter for his tips on life as a cycling vegetarian in rural France.

FWF: What’s it like being a vegetarian in France these days?

Peter: Personally I find it quite inconvenient being vegetarian in France. In unfamiliar places I’m usually condemned to trailing around endlessly looking at menus before I find somewhere I can get a reasonable meal. It’s easier now than it used to be, but many French chefs think a plate of vegetables is perfectly adequate as a meal – they appear to have no idea how to put a balanced, satisfying meal together if they’re forced to stray from their standard repertoire.

However, what’s almost disappeared is the angry chef who takes vegetarianism as an insult to French culture – more and more chefs are taking it seriously and will put something reasonable together. These days I find I’m generally asked what sort of vegetarian I am. Do I eat fish? Dairy? Eggs? Those are sensible questions and represent good progress from the bad old days.

In and around St Antonin, where we live, I know where I can eat well, but the options are very limited – always the same dishes which gets very dull, even if they’re well done. As a result, I rarely eat out. Crepes are always a good option, though.

Restaurants that serve vegetarian food, either improvised or from the menu, often end up being quite expensive. That’s because you usually have to go a la carte – the fixed price is never veggie (omelettes sometimes being an exception).

FWF: How has France changed in terms of catering for vegetarians?

Peter: The very first time I came to France was with a vegetarian friend and she ended up eating mozzarella and tomato salad most of the time, or spaghetti napolitana. French restaurant staff at the time generally thought that all vegetarians could eat chicken and fish.

There’s a powerful upsurge in vegetarianism in France in recent years. It’s concentrated in Paris, but it is spreading. There’s even a new veggie magazine (Slowly Veggie), which is widely available – even in our local maison de la presse. 

We’re in contact with a nationwide group (vegoresto) who persuade normal restaurants to host a veggie or vegan night, and the group fills the restaurant. The idea is to give a practical demonstration that there is a demand for vegetarian/vegan food, and that catering for that demand isn’t difficult. They’ve had no problems getting restaurants to participate, and all have decided to include veggie and/or vegan options on their menu afterwards.

Spinach and Mushroom Quiche to power cycling in France

Spinach and mushroom quiche. Photo: Kelly Garbato

The other pressure point is tourists – restaurants regularly get asked for vegetarian dishes by foreign tourists and many are now more amenable to the idea than they used to be.

All of this means that it’s become quite rare to encounter a restaurant that doesn’t know what vegetarianism is. They may still refuse to serve anything, or what they serve may be dire, but that knowledge is progress.

FWF: What advice in general do you have for vegetarians travelling France?

Peter: All vegetarians who travel will be used to eating endless pizzas – fortunately pizzas in France are generally good. Most restaurants will of course do an omelette, which gets a bit much after too many, but when cepes are in season it can be a treat, and a properly cooked French omelette is a wonderful thing – just not every day.

Chinese restaurants are usually easy too, even if they have nothing on the menu. Indian restaurants are similarly easy, but almost invariably terrible. Italian (pizza aside) is usually OK too. Moroccan restaurants which are quite common in France often have a veg tagine, and Lebanese is always a treat, but quite rare. Fast food joints – at least the independents – can be surprisingly good, with falafel not uncommon, and the occasional veggie burger.

France’s greatest gift to vegetarians is the crepe. Most creperies have veggie options, but if they don’t it’s very easy to go off-piste and create your own. When I eat in a good creperie, it’s one of the few times I don’t feel I’m getting second best.

It’s sometimes possible to create a vegetarian meal from elements of other dishes. A favourite of mine is aligot (an Aveyron speciality of cheese and potato – very rich and calorific) and ratatouille. I’ve eaten that several times in restaurants that have claimed they don’t do anything vegetarian. Restaurants also often have veggie starters, and these can be bulked up to make a main course.

I have a useful rule of thumb to assess to quality of what a chef will produce, although it’s far from infallible. If the chef, at any point, asks: “Well, what do you eat?” it’s time to leave. If a chef doesn’t have the imagination to figure out what a meal without meat would look like, he or she isn’t going to produce anything worth eating.

Vegetarian food is harder to flavour than food cooked with meat – without meat dominating the flavour it can be bland if the cook doesn’t have the necessary skills. It also needs a good balance of the major food groups in order to be satisfying and nutritionally complete. This is easily done, but cooks without experience of veggie food often get it wrong.

Boulangeries can be good, although it’s surprising the number who can’t muster any kind of sandwich that doesn’t contain ham. Quiches are often veggie and usually delicious.

If I can’t find anything decent, I normally go to the shops and get a picnic. I refuse to pay normal restaurant prices for poor quality food.

Research can be really helpful. If you just Google vegetarian and the name of the town you want to eat, often you’ll find something. Happy Cow is a very useful resource (English language) for vegetarians, although not that widely used in France yet – be sure to leave a review of any good veggie food you find to help those who follow. Increasingly, local veggie groups have Facebook pages (usually in French) and vegoresto has a national map of veggie-friendly places. Health food shops can be a good source of local info as well for picnic/cooking ingredients.

French businesses are sometimes reluctant to use the word ‘vegetarian’ for fear it will put French customers off. Our favourite veggie restaurant in Montauban never uses the word.

All of this gets a whole lot more difficult if you don’t speak French (see our handy glossary below). At a minimum, you need a good understanding of menu vocab so that you know what to avoid.

FWF: What advice do you have for cyclists staying at hotels and B&Bs while cycling in France?

Peter: Use the hotel or B&B’s local knowledge. We always make sure to send our vegetarian guests somewhere we know is good, and I usually phone ahead to warn the chef – especially if the guests don’t speak French.

So I would say to use your hotel’s local knowledge and ask the owners for recommendations and to help you plan your evening out at a suitable restaurant.

FWF: What particular considerations are there for cycling vegetarians?

Peter: Always carry emergency rations. Make sure you have the necessary French vocab, and research eating options before you leave home. Try to avoid staying in a place with only one eating option unless you’ve checked it first. Consider camping and cooking for yourself.

Rouen market

Shopping for ingredients in Rouen market. Photo: Jules

Having said that, I’ve cycled all over France many times without bothering with any of that, and have always managed. However I’m a fluent French speaker – with no French it would have been much more difficult – and even then I’ve had to accept some pretty grim meals.

I always tell vegetarian cyclists that it isn’t always possible to combine the best routes with the best food, and that sometimes they’ll have to eat omelette/pizza. I’ve found that they’re very well aware of the limitations in France and are pleasantly surprised how well they are able to eat on the basis of my research.

I never send vegetarian cyclists to a restaurant I haven’t tried myself. A plate of steamed veg isn’t much use to a hungry cyclist. I spend time visiting restaurants and quizzing the chefs on what they might do. It becomes obvious very quickly who will produce good veggie food, but I always eat there myself to make sure.

We offer a picnic option, where we meet cyclists at lunchtime with a picnic prepared and laid out. This helps when decent options aren’t available, and for vegans for whom options are extremely limited.

FWF: And what about vegans?

Peter: It is extremely difficult for vegans to eat out. A small number of the restaurants I use would be OK, but some of the best loops I use have nothing suitable at all. Vegan cyclists would have to take picnics with them. Here in St Antonin, we can feed them in the evenings and there are options in town, but vegan cyclists travelling independently would be best advised to camp so that they can cook for themselves.

Helpful vegetarian vocab to get you started

I am vegetarian                                 Je suis végétarien
I am vegan                                       Je suis vegan/végétalien
Meat                                                 Le viande
Chicken                                             Le poulet
Fish                                                   Le poisson
I don’t eat meat/fish/dairy products     Je ne mange pas de viande/de poisson/de produits latiers
Meat stock                                         Le bouillon de viande
Fish stock                                          Le bouillon de poisson
Does that contain meat stock?             Est-ce que contiennent bouillon de viande ?
Dairy products                                    Les produits laitiers
Eggs                                                  Les Œufs
I eat eggs                                          Je mange des œufs
I do not eat eggs                                Je ne mange pas des oeufs

Vegetarian-run cycling holidays and accommodation in France

Peter and Natalie run Le Chavel Blanc, a specialist vegeterian and vegan B&B near the stunning Aveyron Gorge in south-west France. They also run a sister company, Saint Antonin Noble Velo, which specialises in cycling holidays using the B&B as a base.

If you're looking for a vegetarian cycling holiday further north in France, Carolynn Grimaldi and Peter Roche run Moulin Holidays in the Deux-Sèvres department, 80km north-east of La Rochelle. They specialise in cycling, walking and bird-watching holidays for vegetarians.

For cycling holidays in the Hérault department of Occitanie (formerly Languedoc), check out Vie et Velo run by Bruce and Denise (a vegetarian). They have their own accommodaton base in Caux, but also run trips into Provence. Also in Provence, contact Peter and Joan at Ferme la Garriguette, near Ventoux. Their B&B caters specifically for cyclists. 

On the Canal du Midi, Gillian at Cycle d'Oc, a cyclists' lodge/B&B in Paraza is a cycling vegetarian (and a pretty handy cook as well).

In the Pyrenees, Caroline at the Allez Pyrenees B&B in Bagneres de Bigorre is a veggie (and Lyn @ FWF can personally attest to her delicious cooking as well). Marianne and Brian at Le Fournil Pyrenees Gite in the Central Pyrenees offer B&B and self-catering accommodation. Both are cycling vegetarians. Also in the foothills of the Ariege Pyrenees east of Foix, you can stay at Les Deux Petits Pois Chambres d’Hotes which offers a vegetarian table d'hôte where hosts Philomena and Paul prepare fresh, home-cooked, nutritiously packed food that even meat eaters will enjoy.

Vegetarian restaurant suggestions

Paula and Richard, two American cyclists who came our way recently, have sent on these two restaurant suggestions: 

La Table du Moustier (05 53 42 20 32) in Peyzac Le Moustier in the Dordogne. "They say they offer 'creative cuisine, traditional and vegetarian'. If vegetarian was always this good, I would never eat meat," says Paula.  

The other was Le Fast Fou Chez Louise (05 63 30 28 75) in Saint-Martin-Laguépie (Aveyron). "Again, it’s not a strictly vegetarian place, but it’s hard to think the meat entrees could have been any better," says Paula. "Both places have friendly bi-lingual staff and are on terrific bike rides. The first one we did when we were staying in St Cyprien, and the second during our week at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val.

See below in the comments for more suggestions posted by readers.

If you know a great vegetarian restaurant in France, please share it in the comments below. Any other vegetarian or vegan advice also welcome!

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