I love France. Actually, I am 'in love' with France and I intend to live there one day. I love the people, the history, the culture, their approach to the arts and to artists. Of course, the French are also famous for their food and culinary traditions which makes me smile because I have found that whilst this is true, it does not necessarily extend to their understanding of vegetarianism, particularly in smaller towns and villages.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago I was hosting a business lunch with my French agent and Directors from key potential clients. There were around 12 of us around the table in a quaint traditional French restaurant situated somewhere north of Paris. We had completed an excellent round of meetings in the morning and everybody around the table was looking happy, hungry and thirsty. The atmosphere was fantastic, there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the small restaurant and the many other diners didn't look liked they had just popped in for a quick meal, they looked like they had a permanent residence at their respective tables.
The waitress took orders from our delegation one by one and with all the hubbub going on I have to confess that I didn't take much notice of what everyone was ordering. Soon enough it was my turn to order and I said in my very bad French 'Do you have any vegetarian meals please?'. The table suddenly became silent as the waitress said 'Pardon?' in shock. My stunned agent turned to me wide eyed and asked me if I meant did I want fish. I rolled my eyes as it was obvious I was going to be having another vegetarian 'debate' but, being very hungry and wanting to end the deafening silence that had now spread to the entire restaurant, I just asked for no fish, no meat. My agent turned to the waitress and a long dialogue with much hand gesturing and worried glances in my direction ended with me confirming a simple (and apparently unbelievable) order of plain pasta with some simple 'Arrabiata style' sauce.
With the waitress now gone, the conversations returned to normal for a while until the food started arriving. My small bowl of pasta, along with hastily prepared tomato sauce, was placed in front of me and it looked delicious to me, albeit looking very out of place on a table that was now filled with huge meals that included raw minced meat, huge steaks and all manner of meat. The table went quiet again and this time, almost as a group, I was asked if I was sure I didn't want some real food and I could have some of their meat. Was I ill? I have to smile at this point. The delegation were genuinely concerned for my welfare and my happy explanation of my preference for vegetarian food left all around the table looking baffled. Oh, I also do not drink alcohol so not having wine confused them even more. There was a busy debate in French that followed and when it appeared that they had come to a conclusion my agent turned to me while all the others watched expectantly for my reaction. He asked if I had ever been to Lyon. When I confirmed I had he leaned forward and then said 'Have you ever *dined* at the restaurants in Lyon?' The delegation appeared to almost lean forward at the same time. When I said no, they all leaned back looking relieved and looked to my agent to explain. He gave me some history about Lyon, which is indeed a beautiful city in my humble opinion, and then started talking about the amazing food there. It was the delegations humble opinion that if I were to dine in Lyon that my vegetarianism would be cured instantly and I would never look at a courgette the same way ever again, forsaking my mistaken food choice of many years and become someone who would lead a happy, healthy, red blooded man's life of eating meat.
However misplaced their concerns were, I was very touched by their sincerity and the lengths they were going to save my culinary soul. It is one of the things I love about the French. They are passionate. At the time I just nodded, smiled and eventually got the subject onto other things but I will never forget that meal or the faces of the people at that table. They had a cure for vegetarianism? I don't think so, but they certainly made me appreciate their passion for their food and culture even more.
Vive la France! Vive la difference!
Causes Ryoma Collia-Suzuki Supports
World Wildlife Fund
British Heart Foundation