Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Vegan travelling in France

We recently spent a couple of weeks driving round France in our van – taking in St Malo, Bordeaux, Arcachon, Strasbourg and various points in between, plus Luxembourg and Brussels afterwards for good measure. While I was there I took the opportunity to have a look at what vegan food was on offer in supermarkets and restaurants, to see how easy or difficult it would be to survive as a vegan on holiday in France without the two ring camping stove, crates full of food and vehicle to transport them in that we brought with us.

=== Supermarkets ===

If you’ve got any sort of cooking facilities and can get to a supermarket you’ll be fine, even if your cooking facilities consist of a one-ring camping stove. Supermarkets tend to be situated on the outskirts of towns or on road leading into and out of towns, and they go in for big supermarkets, even bigger than Britain, so there’s a good range of products. As well as basic ingredients such as fruit and veg, pasta, bread, tinned beans and so on, they have organic sections which include quite a few vegan products (none of which require refridgeration) such as pâté, tofu, vegeburgers, ravioli, vegan mayonnaise, snack bars and munchy seeds, a few vegan vegeburgers and pre-prepared dishes in the chillers, a very good selection of non-dairy milks, yoghurts and soya desserts (and sometimes non-dairy ice cream or sorbet) and international sections (usually Mexican, British, Japanese and Indian-style foods) for ingredients such as tortillia wraps or peanut butter.

The main specialist vegan product brands to look for are Sojasun (entirely vegan), CéréalBio and Bjorg (who both make some vegan products but not all of them are, although I think all their products are vegetarian). Apart from some of these, hardly any products were labelled as suitable for vegetarians.

Other useful vegan products I spotted were: breakfast cereals, cereal bars, quick-cook wholegrain rice, gnocchi (little potato dumplings that only take one minute to cook – great camping food!), flavoured couscous, lots of varieties of pasta (forgot to check for sauces but there were quite a lot of Sacla ones, some of which are vegan), bags of nuts

Products I didn’t find (or didn’t find vegan versions of) which I find useful for camping/road trips: instant mashed potato (it all contained milk), straight-to-wok noodles, dried soya mince, houmous, vegan margarine (which I didn’t look for as we didn’t have a fridge).

See below for foods which don’t require cooking.

=== Finding food in towns or cities ===

Small towns didn’t seem to have much in the way of food shops actually in the towns themselves (presumably because they have massive supermarkets every few miles), some had Spar shops or similar small shops which didn’t seem to be hugely promising for interesting food. There’s always bread from the boulangerie (every little town has one of those!) but not a lot else to go with your bread as far as I could tell…

In the cities we visited (Bordeaux and Strasbourg) there weren’t many supermarkets or similar food shops in the city centre. In both cases there was a good supermarket section in the Monoprix department stores, which just looked like clothes shops from the outside but had a supermarket on the lower level.

=== Restaurants ===

As for buying food in restaurants or takeaways, I found very little in the way of vegan food. If you know where you’re going, have a look on or similar before you go. Indian, Chinese and Thai restaurants categorised the dishes on their menus by type of meat, rather than by type of dish like they do in Britain, so you can see at a glance that there’s likely to be bugger all vegan, even in Indian restaurants which was quite surprising, although they may offer one or two vegetable dishes which may or may not be vegan. Not the choice we’re used to here! Vegetarian dishes in Italian restaurants seemed to be entirely cheese-based, and don’t even bother looking for vegan food in traditional French cafes, they’ll probably have you kicked out of the country if they find out what you’re doing… Maybe I was just looking in the wrong places, but I have to say I didn’t find very much at all. Strasbourg has a couple of vegetarian restaurants (one of which I walked past several times without even realising it was vegetarian) and we had an evening meal at a Lebanese restaurant called La Cascade, where the nice waiter/guy in charge brought us vegetarian mezze with no milk or eggs (and didn’t make too much of a fuss when we asked if it would be possible). Looking at the restaurant guides, it looks like there are lots of vegetarian restaurants in Paris, but anywhere else requires serious research beforehand. I was surprised not to find more Middle Eastern takeaways (and hence falafel), maybe they are more common in other cities.

=== Travelling with no cooking facilites ===

This is what I was really interested to find out – is it possible to manage as a vegan with no cooking facilities, for example Interrailing, staying in a youth hostel or in a hotel? I think the answer is it’s possible, but if you’re there for any length of time you will get bored. In big cities there will probably be a Monoprix supermarket or similar somewhere, so you should be able to get what I call ‘picnic food’. This generally involves:
- bread (fresh baguettes, mmm), most supermarket bread had the ingredients printed on the wrapper and the plain white or wholemeal baguettes were usually vegan
- pâté – look for the nice Bjorg ones in the ‘bio’ section
- marinated olives of various kinds
- ‘champignons a la grecque’ – mushrooms in tomato sauce, which seemed to be fairly widespread (watch out though as one brand I spotted had lactose in)
- tabbouleh (they seem to have a whole chillers full of the stuff)
- fresh fruit, when we went in June the supermarkets were full of strawberries, raspberries, cherries, nectarines… also bananas and avocados work as sandwich fillings and are good, portable, energy-giving foods
- cereal bars, some were vegan and some weren’t, just have to read the labels
- bags of nuts and dried fruit
- crisps (they’re not big on crisps but you can find them if you look hard enough)
- vegan yoghurts and soya desserts
- smoothies and fruit juice

I found carrying cutlery came in useful, take a knife, fork and spoon with you if you can (though carrying around a sharp knife is probably not a good plan, stick with an inoffensive table knife, or better still a plastic cutlery set from a camping shop). The other thing that occurred to me is that being vegan and gluten- or wheat-free would be more of a challenge, given that a lot of the bulk we were eating was bread and tabbouleh, although I suspect that gluten-free and wheat-free people may have their own strategies for coping with such situations.

=== Useful vocabulary ===

végétalien(ne): vegan (person – add the –ne on the end if you’re female)
100% végétal(e): 100% plant-based, i.e. vegan
convient aux végétariens et végétaliens: suitable for vegetarians and vegans

contient: contains
peut contenir: may contain
traces éventuels de: may contain traces of
fabriqué dans un atelier qui utilise: made in a factory which handles
arachides: peanuts (vegan, but appears on allergy advice and impossible to guess what it means)

produits bio (or biologiques)/produits dietetiques = organic products/special diets products & vitamins (the section where a lot of the vegan products are)

sans: without, e.g. sans lactose = lactose-free

Non-vegan ingredients:

beurre: butter
crème: cream
fromage: cheese
miel: honey
lactose: lactose
lait: milk
oeuf: egg
petit-lait: whey

Non-vegan and non-vegetarian ingredients:

agneau: lamb
anchois: anchovies
boeuf: beef
canard: duck
crevettes: prawns
dinde: turkey
foie: liver
fruits de mer: seafood
gélatine: gelatine
jambon: ham
lardons: diced bacon
poisson: fish
porc: pork
poulet: chicken
veau: veal
volaille: poultry

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Vegan eating out in Sheffield

We tried out a couple of new restaurants in Sheff recently and found some decent vegan food, at Las Iguanas (West One) and Wagamama (Leopold Square).

At Las Iguanas we had olives and bread for starter and Moqueca with sweet potato, palm hearts and sugar snap peas and Butternut, asparagus and mushroom paella for main dishes. They were both tasty but the moqueca was the more interesting of the two, it was a kind of stew/curry in a tomato and coconut sauce which came with rice and little pots of toasted coconut and salsa. There was sorbet on the dessert menu but we never got as far as dessert (too full of food by then!) so didn't ask if it was vegan. Nice atmosphere, and we went fairly early so it wasn't too busy.

Wagamama opened in Sheffield in April this year so we went along to check it out. We were lucky enough to get a vegetarian waitress, she brought us their standard vegan list to look at and also gave us her own recommendations (and didn't look at me weird for asking about vegan dishes, which is always nice). We had yasai yaki soba (noodle and vegetable dish) on rice noodles instead of egg noodles and without the added bits of egg, and yasai itame (coconut-based noodle soup with tofu, mushrooms and mixed vegetables) with a marinated asparagus side dish. All tasty and quite artistically presented, the portion sizes were adequate but not enough to be overly filling (or maybe that's just because we're used to East One portions!). The result of which being that we did get onto dessert, they had a mango and lychee sorbet and fruit ice lollies which were vegan, so we had one of each. A minor point, but I did think they could make a bit more effort with the decor, the inside was just brick walls painted white, which did give the impression of eating in someone's garage, although we were sitting next to a window with a vase of flowers on the window sill. Not that I tend to look around much anyway when I'm eating out, but a picture or two on the walls might be nice. The poshness of the new Leopold Square on the way in and out does kind of make up for it though. Feels almost European in there!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

More ironic vegan/non-vegan food items

Why is it...

...that Worcester Sauce flavour crisps are suitable for vegans but Henderson's Relish ones aren't? I spotted some Henderson's Relish flavoured crisps in Beanies the other day, got all excited about it, looked at the ingredients in that cynical, vegan way of mine which expects anything tasty-looking to have unnecessary animal products shoved into the ingredients somewhere and yes, they contain lactose. Coincidentally, I got some Walkers Worcester Sauce flavour crisps at the weekend and they were suitable for vegans as they used 'worcester sauce flavouring' which didn't contain fish and they hadn't used milk in the ingredients.

On its own, Henderson's Relish is vegan and Worcester Sauce isn't vegan or vegetarian as it contains fish, and I normally promote Hendo's to friends, family and random strangers on the internet as a vegan alternative to Worcester Sauce, so it's kind of ironic that the Worcester Sauce crisps are vegan and the Henderson's ones aren't. Hmm, maybe I should just make some potato wedges and coat them in Hendo's instead...

Cheese and ice cream (though not at the same time)

Right, now I've finished my coursework, been on my holidays and got a couple of days off per week (or that's the theory anyway) I can start doing this blog thing properly. We've just spent a couple of weeks driving round France being strange foreigners, having a look at what vegan food you can actually get there (in a country where 'vegetarian' means "you only want small pieces of ham, then?") whilst having the comfort and safety of our van, a camping stove and a few crates of food we stocked up on before we set off. Not that we needed to take that much food, as we found out, but more on that later.

There's a couple of products I've discovered lately, the first is B'Nice rice cream, a vegan ice cream made from rice milk which comes in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavours. For the sake of research I made a point of sampling a bit of each at the Bristol Vegan Fayre last May (and have since bought more to eat at home!) and I have to say this is good stuff. The chocolate and strawberry flavours in particular taste just like 'normal' ice cream, that is to say rather nice soft scoop ice cream. The vanilla one had a bit of a taste to it that you wouldn't get with 'normal' ice cream, although it was very nice in itself, so if I was feeding this to non-vegans I'd go for the chocolate or the strawberry flavours first.

The other thing I discovered at the Vegan Fayre was the Sheese range of vegan cheese. I know Sheese have been around for quite a while but I'd never tried it before, partly because I only occasionally buy vegan cheese (usually for stuffed crust pizza) and partly because a vegan friend had told me it wasn't very nice, so on the rare occasions I did buy any I didn't bother looking at the Sheese as I didn't want to risk wasting my money buying something I wouldn't like. I have now seen the error of my ways! They had lots of free samples out on their stall, and every time we walked past the stall I'd have to wander over and try another one! My favourite one so far is the smoked cheddar, and I quite liked some of the samples of cream Sheese, I think there was a spicy one I particularly liked.

A lot of people seem to be put off by the concept of vegan cheese and think it can't possibly taste any good, but the Sheese stuff was pretty realistic and just tasted good regardless of how closely it resembled dairy cheese. The only thing with vegan cheese is that it doesn't melt in the same way as dairy cheese, it tends to go soft but not spread out like dairy cheese does, although Cheezly (the other main brand of vegan cheese) do some 'super melting' cheeses which do a reasonable job in a stuffed crust pizza. The best test of it so far: my mum, who has eaten cheese sandwiches for lunch practically every day for the last 40-odd years, had some toast with sliced smoked cheddar Sheese for her lunch today when she came to visit, ate it all up and said it was pretty good. That's a good test for a vegan product (or vegan cake for that matter), when you can feed it to an omnivore and they don't notice there's anything 'wrong' with it. I had a slice of grated Sheese and fig relish on toast, yum!