On the boat coming over to France, right in the middle of the sea, I felt my first wave of doubt about our move rolling over me. What if we couldn’t find anything to eat in deepest Gers? Swept up in all the excitement of organising a new life, selling our tiny terrace house, getting the cat micro-chipped, I had somehow overlooked that not only is Gers pretty far from the sea, but it is one of the main fois gras producing regions of France!!!
I worked out the other day that I have spent over half my life not being a meat eater. I do feel the need to clarify here that I do supplement my mainly vegetarian diet with eating fish. And some days I cook vegan food and make my own meat substitutes and even make cheese. I am a flexi, pesci vegetarian. There, does it clarify things? Having only recently come from the UK – we’ve been here just over a year – I am still doing a lot of Compare and Contrast. For instance, being a vegan/vegetarian is totally unremarkable in the UK and there is a massive shift towards mainstream retailers and restaurant cafe owners leaping onto the band wagon; really there is no better time to ditch the steaks. In France, however, we seem to be explaining ourselves nearly every time we open our mouths to eat, mainly, interestingly, to English expats. My favourite question, accompanied by a puzzled tilt of the head, is “So, what do you eat at Christmas?”. I try to see off such conversations at the pass now, feeling I have really explained this enough, people. I just don’t eat meat, end of.
So, moving on, I could not be in a worse place for a non meat eater, or so you might think. I arrived here with a big pile of veggie cookbooks and my trusty tofu press at the ready. Initially, amidst all the chaos of moving house , we lived solely on a diet of French cheese, melons and beer. But woman cannot live on Camembert alone and after a few weeks I decided to embrace my new life as a non meat eater in France: I am delighted to be able to share my journey with you! I am planning to pass on my top tips for surviving in this very meat-centric country. I will happily share recipes with you, recommend great places to eat, and will point out where you can go shopping. Basically, I want to give you a big reassuring hug and say “Its OK! Not only will you survive, but in a very short amount of time you will thrive!”. It turns out France is a fine place to be a non meat eater; you just have to slightly think ahead, that’s all!. Furthermore, I reckon we are living in exciting times, as France starts to slowly accommodate the Vegan Revolution that is sweeping the rest of the world! France likes revolutions, right?
There’s so much I want to tell you, but I shall start this first blog with my first experience of going to a… ‘Chasse Dinner’! Yes, really! To the uninitiated, a ‘Chasse Dinner’ is a staple event in each village’s diary. Traditionally it is a feast where sanglier (wild boar) is the absolute highlight, although many villages now serve other meats. It is a glorious feast of wild abandon, where the villagers are liberally fed and watered by the hunters themselves and everyone’s cheeks grow rosy from the magic refilling bottles of wine on the table .I really wanted to witness this experience for myself. I wanted to feel part of my new community. Living deep in the countryside as we do, sandwiched by fields of maize and sunflowers on all sides, we are learning to recognise the rhythms of the changing seasons. We have seen first hand a family of sanglier strolling across the road, bathed in moonlight. Only last night I was woken up by loud snuffling and chomping sounds as a wild boar munched its way through some tender corn on the cob in the field opposite our house. But we understand the need to control the number of wild boar that are hidden in the woodlands. Did you know that wild boar can have as many as four litters of young each year?? Such fecundity! While I might not like the idea of hunting wild animals, it is not up to me to pass any judgement whatsoever and wrinkle my nose. This is how it is done here and has been for centuries.
So, my first ‘Chasse Dinner’ was a blast. English readers take note thought that the French will only start to eat and drink when everyone is present. I fear we looked very casual and overly comfortable quaffing wine and crunching handfuls of crisps way before our French hosts had even shaken out their napkins. Through my red wine haze, I remember a succession of courses floating past my eyes. I loved the clear vegetable soup, with tapioca pearls like bubbles. I happily ate bread when the pate course swam by, just explaining with a smile that I didn’t eat meat. And then, how kind, we were given our main. OK, it was quite literally a plate of potatoes and carrots, but I appreciated the gesture so much.
In the midst of all this meat carnage, someone had taken the time to sort us something out. After this, all was plain sailing, cheese and salad, strawberries and cream for pudding and then Armagnac and bubbly. But, the point is that we weren’t made to feel like freaks, we were just courteously accommodated and included as far as possible. Top tip for next time, nobody would mind if you brought something from home that you could eat. After all, its the act of breaking bread together that’s important, especially when you are airlifting into tiny village communities like we are all doing.
Quick last word: McDonalds France has just launched Le Grand Veggie and its delicious! There is a time and a place for fast food and most foodies would say it is never. But, starving hungry after a delayed long flight home, my sons and I ventured in to the Maccy D’s near Blagnac Airport, Toulouse. I was pleasantly surprised. The plasticky bread, the melty cheese, the tangy gherkins of my youth, it was all still there and more. The actual burger was slightly dry, but very savoury and definitely hit the spot.
Well, thanks for reading my first blog and please get in touch with any comments or just to share your own experiences!