Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Plant-based in Paris? Vegan at Versailles? Bearly!

Years ago I read about a family who stealthily kidnapped their neighbor's little garden duck decoration, and took it with them on their European vacation. Upon returning, the travelers presented both the missing duck and a photo album of all the places in Europe the duck had visited, to the delight of their neighbors.

Several years back I picked up the Jessica Bear keychain while visiting my husband's German relatives. I took one picture of the bear with a bigger bear, and that was it - Jessica Bear's Adventures began! We've photographed her at the Great Wall, on the canals of Venice, in Germany, Switzerland, Poland. I got in trouble attempting to take a photo of her in a Romanian grocery store (by a can of carp, which is spelled "crap" in Romanian.) She gets tucked away on most all of our adventures, and we have a great time finding places to pose her wherever we visit. It's great on my bad hair days, at least we get a good photo of one Jessica.

Our recent trip to France was no different. The Bear and I went for 10 days, my husband flew in for just the last five. I was first in Paris with friends in unusual but terrific accomodations - a houseboat on the Seine. Then my husband met our train with minutes to spare to head down to a lovely small city in the Tours region, Blois. More on those places later, but this post is all about food, because it's France and France equals food. 

In 2016, we noticed an amazing change in both Germany and Romania when it came to finding vegan food. It was easy, especially in Germany. There were Soy Curls in the drugstores and most every restaurant had vegan options. It seemed to us that these meat-centric countries had done a complete flip cuisine-wise, much to our delight. But would France be the same way? 

Jessica Bear, packed away with the other travel essentials.

Air France did not disappoint, I ordered a Hindi Vegan meal plan.
Spicy garbanzo beans for breakfast? Why not?

The houseboat held seven people and one bear very comfortably.

Upon arriving and checking out our accommodations, our group hopped on the metro and headed into Paris. Before jet lag hit, hunger hit harder. The group was really hoping to find the perfect Parisian bistro to eat at, you know, the kind with outdoor tables, waiters in white aprons, that lovely ambience you think of when you think Paris restaurant. But hunger is a powerful force, so we begrudgingly settled for a place that advertised burgers. This vegan hoped for the best.

Not only were the burgers swooned over, and the charcuterie and cheese platter cleaned to the last crumb, this plant-based eater was extremely happy with her choice - a quinoa and veggie salad. I made entirely too many happy food noises as every last grain of quinoa and each bite of fruit and vegetable was consumed with culinary appreciation. Ah food, the French do food like no other. Why did I doubt?

A vegan salad at a burger restaurant? No problem!

Jet lag? Grin and bear it, with lots of caffeine, of course.
I thought this would be a sign of things to come, that plant-based eating had arrived in Paris, but this was not the case. I had to be super creative in most of the restaurants we visited after that first night. It's not hard to explain what you need in a restaurant, if you speak the language. But with lots of facial expressions, pointing and with our trusty French speaking Blake helping out, I was able to get the point across - I want food with no meat, eggs or dairy please. 

My biggest peeve about asking for a food change is when you're asking that the expensive part of the salad be left out, and they do just that, leave it out but then leave you with a tiny boring salad. Not in France, they get it - she doesn't want meat, but she does want vegetables. So they piled on the good stuff and I piled the good stuff in. The combos were delicious, the dressings were divine and I ate like a queen. 

I did taste the French Onion Soup. Yum.
But there it's just called Onion Soup for some strange reason.
On the way to and from the metro each day, we passed a very fancy Indian restaurant. My first thought was, I sure don't want to eat Indian food while in Paris. Oh how wrong I was. On the last night before we headed south, I was in the mood for something, but I couldn't quite decide what. My friends were debating going out for one last meal in Paris, but something was drawing me to that Indian restaurant. I had already (according to my phone) walked 8 miles that day and climbed 38 floors, but I summoned the energy to walk back for some Indian food takeout. 

I found a worker who could understand my needs, I wanted some "take away food' with no meat, eggs or dairy. I was shown an item on the menu called Mixed Vegetables. Since I can't read French, I wasn't able to point to anything more interesting sounding, and I didn't want to be a difficult vegan, so I agreed to the Mixed Vegetables with rice. I was picturing some boring cauliflower and carrots, dry. What was I worried about, this was Indian food in France! Where would I get better Indian food outside of India? Their clientele was French, of course their food would be the best take ever on food from India with awesome French ingredients.

That was one awesome meal. I artfully arranged the out-of-this-world mix of vegetables in the yummiest and perfectly spiciest of sauces over the fluffiest of rices on a real plate and enjoyed it on the deck of the houseboat. It then occurred to me, Why was I passing up the ethnic restaurants in Paris for "real French food"? The French do food great, so they would do all the food great. Next trip to Paris, if there ever is one, will have me visiting Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish and every other kind of restaurant I can find. Who cares if it's authentic? Who needs authentic when it's cooked in France?

Our fruit stand in Blois, France.

One night they said the sorbet was vegan.
The next night they said it had "a leeeetle milk."
It was goooooooood.

Best. Melon. Ever.

Cupcakes after the civil ceremony.
They weren't vegan, but they were very pretty.

Wine is vegan.
Very much so.
The main purpose of our trip to France was to attend the wedding of my dear friend's son and his French Canadian fiancee. Her family owns a chateau in the Tours region, in a town near Blois. It was a lovely setting for a lovely couple on a lovely day. It was just lovely, if I haven't said so already. 

The wedding was catered, but the groom's mom had the task of adding some items to the after-the-ceremony champagne serving hour, while the wedding party was taking photos. So she purchased lots of cheese, nuts, fruit and crackers along with some bread. Can you imagine the feelings of three Americans realizing they were arranging cheese boards for French people who really know cheese? Like intimately, since birth? We did the oh-so-chic presentation of a little bit of this, a little bit of that, artfully arranged in a sort of messy manner - the fashionable way you present appetizers in the US right now. It was quite the juxtaposition between our overflowing cheese and fruit platters and the sparse and precise hors d'oeuvres served by the catering company. All-you-can-eat American style verses French culinary conservatism. Our cheese boards were appreciated, but I also appreciated the different food approach as the evening continued. 

Say cheese!

The ultimate in outdoor cafes.

There was a vegan option, but we didn't get the memo.
So we just traded with our seatmates.
In the most elegant way, of course. 
When the dinner arrived, it became quite evident why French women don't get fat. The food, while very rich, was served in small portions. There was more white dinner plate showing than food. We switched and swapped food with those sitting next to us to get some vegan options. We tried to eat slowly. Pick up the fork, eat something, put down the fork. let the body know it just ate something, swallow, pause, repeat. 

Everything was lovely. We started with a pear sorbet with pear brandy to cleanse the palate. After that came the dinner as described above. Then they took away the food plates and we were served the salad course. After that the five cheese course. I was expecting overflowing boards of cheese like we had created earlier. Silly me. A server approached each guest with a platter of five cheeses, and asked which were their choices. He or she was then served a small portion of the chosen cheeses. The guests ate them slowly, savoring each morsel with the bread on the table. (The Americans had already finished off all our bread with the main meal. Silly Americans.)

It was all so refined, and no one pushed themselves back from the table exclaiming they were stuffed to the gills and would never put another bite of food in their mouth ever again. The French, they have the whole eating thing down to a perfect art. 

So if you're traveling in France as a plant-based eater, have no fear. While vegan menus aren't the norm, you'll have no problem getting your dietary needs satisfied, along with your tastebuds getting satisfied too. And when you find yourself in an Indian restaurant, just order the Mixed Vegetables With Rice. I'll happily accept your "merci" ahead of time. 

Venture into non-French food.
It's bound to be wonderful. 

Bistro perfection.