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Herbivores de Provence: Two Vegans, Five Weeks in France

Story Alex Payne

Photos Nicole Brodeur

Web Feature sponsor V-dog

Originally published in Driftwood Issue Two

Paris Unexpectedly, France’s growing vegan scene greeted us before we stepped off the plane. Our flight attendant, the perfect petite picture of a chic young Parisian, noticed a copy of Laika poking up from our seat-back pocket. She’s vegan, she said, but she didn’t think her hometown had much to offer in the way of plant-based dining. Happily, Paris would prove her wrong in a matter of hours.

My fiancée and I began our trip—a sort of pre-honeymoon, squeezed into our schedules where it fit, many months in the planning—with ten days in France’s historic capitol. Home base? The Marais, a French analogue to New York’s perennially fashionable SoHo—all boutiques, cafés, and gay bars. We chose the Marais for its central location, but it turned out to be a superb area for vegan options as well.

Groggy from the flight and famished after the airline’s wholly inadequate attempt at a meatless meal, we were grateful to be stumbling distance from East Side Burgers. A little bit rock ’n’ roll, this vegetarian/vegan burger joint quickly became a favorite. The owners, husband and wife, were behind the counter every time we visited. Typically French in their cool reserve and world-weary outlook, they claimed that veggie spots like theirs struggle along in Paris. Still, we rarely saw their place empty, the lunch crowd packing in every last seat in the space-efficient basement dining room.

Maximizing one’s time in Paris while taking advantage of the city’s vegan offerings takes a bit of planning. Dining choices are readily available but, relative to the expanse of the city, somewhat sparse. You won’t find a good vegan option near the Musée Rodin, for example, but nor would you want to miss the transportative statuary on its grounds. We scheduled our time around visits to museums and historical sites, being sure to pick out the nearest restaurants at which to refuel when we inevitably overdosed each day on cathedrals like the Sacré Coeur, modernist sculptures at the Musée D’Orsay, or Revolution-era battle paintings at the Carnavalet. We soon discovered that reservations are a must at sit-down restaurants, even at lunch.

Café Pinson, uniformly healthy but only partially vegan, was our go-to breakfast spot when we weren’t taking our morning meal in our flat: avocado or tomato toast, whichever looked better at the corner market the evening before. During the week, Pinson does a simple spread, a vegan-friendly take on the typical baguette with jam and butter. On the weekend, their menu expands to a full brunch—everything from fresh green juice to sweet quinoa bowls, almond yogurt, and homemade fruit breads.

The aforementioned East Side Burger, while our favorite, has competition on the veggie burger front from equally casual counter service spots Hank and MOB. Both Café Ginger and Gentle Gourmet were worth second visits, for lunch and dinner respectively, the latter delivering a versatile mix of French and Vietnamese flavors before indulgent desserts.

Saveurs Veget’Halles, cooking somewhat dated vegetarian fare, was nonetheless a lifesaver after seemingly infinite hours in the nearby Louvre, where all we could scrape together for a snack were Oreos, a desiccated apple, Pringles, and red wine. Food may be an art for the French, but the food adjacent to their art frequently left much to be desired. The few times we were caught out without a dining plan found us frustratedly trudging from storefront to storefront, searching for a falafel or some similar vegan go-to, often settling for a baguette and a tub of hummus.

Ubiquitous bio (organic) grocery store chains proved invaluable, both for cooking back at the flat and stocking up for day trips. We loaded up at Bio c’Bon before venturing out of Paris to the sprawling royal grounds of Versailles and picturesque Giverny, home to Monet’s now-eternal gardens and its handsome resident chickens. Lacking options for full meals, these tourist destinations nonetheless yielded treats that were incidentally vegan. Cool sorbet served under a healthy dram of pear eau de vie was much appreciated as the last remnants of winter drizzle gave way to warm spring days. Having exhausted our list of must-see sights—yet barely having scratched the surface of all Paris has to offer—we reluctantly boarded a train bound southeast, the countryside our destination.

Avignon Avignon, our chosen waypoint to Provence, is perfect for a one-night visit. The city might ring a bell after a listen to 15th century banger “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” which celebrates the local bridge. Winding our way through the city’s narrow street, we arrived at a scenic river, flanked by the soaring stone walls of the Palais des Papes. Come nightfall, we grabbed a table at Les 5 Sens, a high-end restaurant whose primary menu is a challenge, given its extensive exploitation of flesh. Skeptical but lacking alternatives, we were caught off guard by the vegetarian (vegan on request) tasting menu: several servings of seasonal vegetables cooked simply and to utter perfection. This was by far the most elegant meal of our entire trip, the restaurant’s slick interior and impeccable service a stark contrast to the humble country establishments we’d soon be passing through with nary a meatless option in sight.

The next morning we wandered deeper into Avignon, in the process discovering a fact of historic Gaelic urban planning: At each city’s center you’ll find the market. Avignon’s boasts a lively mix of stalls under one roof. With a catalog of recipes in mind, we procured spices, veggies, grains, exceptional regional olive oil, and other kitchen sundries, happily ignoring the butchers and fishmongers in favor of vendors offering up artichoke dip and tapenade. Totes overflowing, we packed up a rental car and backtracked a bit to the north, multilane highways tapering to narrow country roads.

Venasque Just an hour later, we didn’t so much arrive in Provence as find perch above it. It takes a place as tiny as Venasque to truly understand the difference in scale between a village and a town. With no more than two dozen households and a handful of irregularly open businesses, nobody is mistaking this clifftop village for anything larger. We parked by the ramparts, still standing as a testament to Roman construction, and passed through the walls as one passes into the hazy dream of an afternoon nap.

Spending a week in Venasque was, for us urbanites, wonderfully surreal. Every structure in the village’s core defines “ancient.” For perspective: The baptistry, dating back to the ninth century, was a later addition. Our lodgings fused timeless, chilly stonework to a modern kitchen and roof deck, trapping us between eras as we split our days between exploring the countryside and keeping up with work on our laptops. The availability of quite good Internet access was an anachronism in itself. With barely any job opportunities to keep the younger generations from fleeing to the city, the majority of residents are of advanced years. We wondered how much longer Venasque would be a living place as we followed local family lineages from headstone to headstone in the village cemetery.

Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt Leaving behind the foregone dream-village of Venasque, we drove an hour east, white-knuckling it on narrow cliffside roads. Our route skirted the edge of the decent-size city of Apt, once global center of production for glacé fruit, a centuries-old delicacy lost on contemporary taste buds. A few kilometers beyond, the village of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt overlooks vineyards and farmland from a slight rise, its streets containing more variety and life than our previous destination.

Our base for the next two weeks was a small cottage on a lush parcel. Along the bumpy path to its door, vines sprung up for the season, adding inches seemingly by the day. In the orchard, rows of cherry and olive trees. Fat bumblebees made rounds amongst wisteria draping a pergola out front, their insect droning on the breeze evoking a steady calm. Small lizards soaked up sun before disappearing into brick crevices, while even smaller scorpions took shelter indoors when it rained. Most days mild and nature thriving, spring is the ideal time to visit Provence.

However, with the exception of a couple of bio markets, there is precisely zilch for vegans in this general area. To survive and thrive, you must know the farmers markets, their varying schedules and locations. Most every day a different village or small city will play host to a collection of stands, the selection going well beyond produce. Larger markets branch out into jams, regional delicacies like nougat (not on our shopping list), speciality items like truffles and wild mushrooms, even clothing and folksy handcraft. Shopping them practically daily, we began to see the same cast of vendors, all of whom gamely tolerated our clumsy French as we fortified our pantry. A few French phrases and the remainder in English might get you by in Paris, but out here it was parlez vous or no.

Provencal cuisine, owing to its Mediterranean character and extensive use of olive oil over butter and lard, is well suited for vegan adaptation. Many de facto vegan dishes are in the regional repertoire. Larger entrées work well if appropriately seasoned seitan or a hearty vegetable is substituted for animal protein. Paired with the plentiful and affordable biodynamic (albeit not explicitly veganic) rosés and syrah-grenache blends from nearby vineyards, our culinary experiments worked out far more often than not. A snack of garlicky olives and chilled caviar d’aubergine with fresh bread carried us from lunch to dinner after a walk to the village, where locals waited out the day’s lingering heat over tall blonde beers.

This idyllic routine left us with little desire to venture further afield, but a visiting friend required fetching from Nice. We made the most of our brief visit to the coastal city, looking a touch Miami in its sun-bleached pastels, by stopping for lunch at our first veg-friendly restaurant in many days. Endearingly tattered and informal, Le Speakeasy is the longstanding endeavor of a Californian expat. The food was straightforward and satisfying, another French spot stuck in the vegetarian cuisine of 1980s Berkeley, to no particular malice.

It wasn’t easy to close the shutters on our tiny cottage after two weeks, but the next leg of our journey was upon us. Going back through Avignon, we hopped a train bound north.

Dijon Owls brought us to Dijon. Specifically, the trail of owl plaques embedded in the sidewalk around town, forming a walking tour of the city’s landmarks. It’s a charming way to explore an equally charming city. Dijon brings together elements of everything we’d experienced so far in France: historical and modern, city life and country life. Block by block, the city moves through eras. Down this street, chain stores that could be anywhere; down that, a duke’s grand palace, now home to art and treasures as varied as the city itself.

Avocado and cucumber rolls from Sushi Shop, a French-born franchise, were a welcome break from the stove the night we arrived. Otherwise, we found ourselves hitting the bio market and cooking for most meals in Dijon, veg options being scarce despite the density of restaurants and sizable student population. For lunch, yoga studio/café Le Shanti serves up a limited but tasty menu of Indian-influenced food, almost entirely vegan. We came back repeatedly, enjoying the happy hippie vibe with our curried tempeh sandwiches and fresh juices.

The road through the center of Dijon runs to the famed wine country of Burgundy. There, vineyards terraformed and walled in by monks long ago now produce bottles so prized that there are waiting lists to get on their waiting lists. Our guide to the area, despite his many years in the local food and wine scene, had yet to try these rarest of rare wines.

Vinicultural pilgrims come to genuflect on Burgundy’s holy terrior. Pricey and scarce at barely 5% of total production, grand cru wines are the region’s most celebrated. Motoring us from vineyard to vineyard, our guide fretted over an ongoing casualty of globalization: Burgundy is trying to hold on to its traditions while local families are trying to hold on to their land. Facing competition and high inheritance taxes, many opt to sell their vine-covered hectares to multinational corporations. With grapes running right up to the edge of every domicile in the area, it’s hard to imagine wine production here getting any more efficient. Greed’s thirst, it seems, is never slaked.

The idea of veganic viticulture has not taken root in France, and indeed barely translated when we inquired about the practice. Having a longstanding political tradition of regulation, France takes organic certifications seriously for many products, of which wine is a prominent example. It may take a generation or two for the idea of completely animal-product-free winemaking to find its first few adopters there. In the meantime, we appreciated that much of the wine culture in France has an environment awareness, if not an ethical one.

Departing Finally, from Dijon back to Paris, where we had but one night and some of the next day to begin un-synchronizing ourselves from the pace of French life: occasionally faster than home but readily luxuriating in pleasures both simple and complex.

Opting once again to bed down in the now-familiar Marais, we had just enough time to revisit our Parisian favorites: East Side Burger and Gentle Gourmet. The Picasso Museum, not nearly as overwhelming in scale and scope as many of the city’s prized cultural temples, was squeezed in before we headed to the airport. We took the artist’s cartoonish minotaurs with us, stalking our memories into Paris’s maze-like streets.

We left so much of France to be explored on future trips. Still, we thoroughly enjoyed our particular cross-section of the country for its varieties of landscapes, food, history, and culture. From a vegan perspective, France may not be the ideal destination, but nor is it unmanageable, even in the countryside. Be prepared to cook, know where your next meal is coming from, and you’ll soon be looking past the butcher shops and fromageries to the burgeoning veg alternatives and thriving organic food and wine scenes. One last tipple of rosé to wash it all down? Oui, c’est délicieux!

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