Surviving as a vegan cyclist in France

Almost whatever dietary restriction you have, at home you’ll have figured out where and how you can eat, but when you travel that can fall apart and make life difficult.  You won’t know which restaurants you can eat in, products in the shops might be unfamiliar and their ingredients hard to decipher and you might not speak the language.  Cyclists have particular difficulty because they’re always hungry and because they tend to avoid big cities where there’s more choice.  This blog post is about how to eat well as a vegan cyclist in France and should help you make the best of your trip.

France has a strong food culture based mostly on animal products which has made veganism difficult.  However Veganism in France is now very much on the rise.  It’s much discussed in the media, there are popular magazines devoted to it and food outlets are springing up seemingly daily.  Unusually the nation seems to have bypassed the usual intermediate step of vegetarianism.  A vegan diet though isn’t quite as alien to French culture as you might think.  Despite their love of animal products, the French are typically very interested in the food that they eat.  Traditional French cuisine hasn’t moved on in decades, restaurants are more likely than ever to buy pre-prepared dishes rather than cook from scratch and the French are annoyed about it!  When vegans suddenly appeared in France, they found a surprising number of people interested in what they have to say simply because they are talking about food.  Combine this with a desire for something new to eat and the attraction is less strange than it first appears.  It also explains why vegetarianism isn’t talked about because the arguments in favour of vegetarianism lead logically to veganism.

For the vegan cyclist though France is still a difficult destination.  The explosion of vegan food is mostly limited to the larger cities where cyclists are unlikely to be, and many of the new restaurants are big on enthusiasm but don’t necessarily cook great food.  Despite all of this, France is still one of the best countries in the world to ride a bike, so it’s worth dealing with the eating difficulties.

A big change in recent years in France which is thanks to the media coverage of veganism is that most restaurants know what a vegan is.  It’s now rare to be told “there’s only a little bit of Ham in this dish” or that “Chicken isn’t meat”.  If your French is limited, that makes a big difference.  But it doesn’t mean you’ll be served anything that great.  If you’re lucky they’ll have ratatouille but if not you’re stuck with the usual vegan staples;  a simple pasta dish, pizza without cheese or a rather insubstantial salad – never enough for a hungry vegan cyclist.  A better option can be independent fast food outlets because they often have falafel, usually served as a wrap or as a platter which is almost always vegan.  You won’t find this in villages but they’re ubiquitous in small towns.  Pizzas are also very common and it’s easy to order something without cheese.

Traditional Breton crepes are vegan but unfortunately most creperies use both milk and eggs.  It can be worth asking though…

Planning can help.  Happy Cow is always useful, but if you can manage the language Vegoresto is better.  Don’t forget opening times – the French are typically very rigid about when they eat, so you can’t rely on being served lunch of any kind if you arrive before 12 or after 1.30.  Tripadvisor can also come up with options and there’s always google – search for “vegan” and the name of the place you’re visiting.

Vegan cyclists are very accustomed to self catering and France works well for that.  There are health food shops in all small towns (usually called bio co-ops) who always have a range of vegan goods.  Supermarkets normally have a bio section and it’s surprising what you can find.  Plant milks and yogurts are very common.  A word about houmous though.  It’s mostly kept near the fish products (!) and generally contains dairy instead of tahini so make sure you check the ingredients.  Fortunately stringent European law about packaging ensures you know what’s in all supermarket products.  Boulangeries are less good.  Of course the bread is fine, but it’s very difficult to find a pre-prepared sandwich that doesn’t contain butter, ham and cheese.  All the baked products contain butter.

If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a market, you may do better.  Market traders are often trying to carve out a niche for themselves and so it’s not uncommon to find vegan produce.  Sometimes they’re young people who don’t have the money to set up a shop – and they’re more likely to be vegan cyclist friendly than more established traders.  Stall holders tend to be knowledgable about what they sell and are happy to talk.  They might not speak much English though!

A vegan cyclist in France should always take a few essentials.  A simple stove and a pot makes self catering a whole lot easier and you should always have sufficient food with you for at least one meal, preferably more.  Assume that you’ll get stuck from time to time and be unable to find anything to eat.  I tend to have a stock of muesli bars – not exactly a meal but they have often kept my legs working until I could find something better.

In our particular corner of France we talk constantly to restauranteurs and cafes.  We’ve found that some of the best vegan food is served in places which have nothing suitable on the menu – you have to talk to them.  Assuming you speak enough French to do that, they often require notice but it’s worth a go if you’re stuck.  Unless you’re happy with a plate of chips and salad it tends not to work in cheap places.

Don’t forget that if you stumble upon any gems, list them on Happy Cow for other vegan cyclists.

Of course if you can’t be bothered with all this, you could just book with us and we’ll take care it….

Glossary of French Vocab

Vegan: Vegan or Vegetalien.  It’s much better to use vegan because Vegetalien sounds too much like vegetarian!

I don’t eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs:  Je ne mange pas de viande, poisson, la laiterie ou des oeufs.

I’d like a vegetarian pizza without cheese: Je voudrais une pizza végétarienne sans fromage (there’s almost always a vegetarian pizza on the menu in pizzerias – omit the cheese and it’ll be vegan.)

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