Why it’s murder getting a meat-free meal in France - the pains of being a vegetarian abroad
I have a sneaking admiration for the French – if they don't like something, they just ban it, sit back and ignore any criticism on the grounds that they just don't care.
This week, new legal nutrition requirements for French school canteens have been published which effectively ban vegetarianism entirely and impose meat consumption on six million schoolchildren.
A new law has been passed making it clear that all sources of protein served to children in school should come from animal and not vegetable products.
On a 20-meal cycle, a minimum of four meals must include 'quality meat' and four 'quality fish' and on the other days, egg, cheese or 'abats' (offal) should be the main dish.
In short, the French are finally adding an official stamp to their legendary hatred of vegetarians.
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Being a vegetarian in France is like being an intellectual in Ipswich: you stand out like a sore thumb, no one understands you and everyone just wishes you'd leave.
I like to view any trip to France as an opportunity to lose a substantial amount of weight due to the impossible nature of finding anything on a French menu which doesn't have a face.
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A vegetarian salad in France is one where the cow's heart, liver, kidneys and anal glands have been removed from your plate at the table and replaced with a pig's brain. Or a crayfish with an accusing look on its face.
The last time I hopped over the Channel for a press trip, I watched dolefully as my colleagues enjoyed six courses of French cuisine while I debated the finer points of vegetarianism with the waiter.
This mainly involved picking at a baguette while drawing pictures of carrots and lettuce.
After several hours of high-level talks (proving conclusively that an A at French O-level is no indication whatsoever that you'll be able to hold your own with Jean-Paul when he points at your leather shoes) and etchings, the restaurant – a centre of gastronomic excellence – produced a meat-free meal for me.
It was three pieces of cheese and a slice of bread.
On other days, I fared better.
Once, I was given a plate of plain pasta with two chives placed on top – for this, my Granddad lied about his age to join the army and fought in the muddy fields of the Somme.
Thanks to the aforementioned inadequacy of French lessons at school and our inherent mistrust of anything foreign, there are only about three people in Britain who understand French menus and they're all too traumatised to speak of the horrors they have seen.
Everything on the menu looks fantastic, but that's because you have absolutely no idea what it is and didn't learn the French for 'urinary tract'.
The French telephone directory would look equally tasty.
A typical French menu reads as follows ('V' indicates vegetarian option):
•Bald eagle stuffed with peacock entrails, served with a side salad of horse.
•Slices of raw baby seal presented inside a whole frog and accompanied by otter fritters and kitten stew.
•Bottlenose dolphin, clubbed to death at your table, with hummingbird sorbet and a fan of lightly-seared timber wolf wafers.
•Lightly-seared calf 's brain in a vinaigrette followed by scallops stuffed with selected glands and lungs, served with a snail souffl�.
•Bacon salad (V).
Incidentally, one of those menu options is a genuine meal I watched someone eat on my last visit to France.
And it wasn't the bacon salad.
My theory about the French and their blithe acceptance of eating absolutely everything is that, most of the time, they're too drunk to put up any kind of fight.
We are forever being told that the Europeans are streets ahead of us when it comes to their attitude to alcohol and that what we call child abuse (giving Cedric-Hugo wine at the age of two) they call 'a relaxed drinking culture'.
According to the French, the Brits approach licensing laws like a parched man in the desert who comes across a distillery – we drink as much as we can as quickly as we can and then we fall over or have a fight.
In France, nobody spends their weekend binge drinking and passing out on the pavement.
This is mainly because they are all far too drunk to get to the pub, having had their first aperitif at 6.30am.
They drink in the morning.
They drink at lunchtime.
They drink in the afternoon.
They drink in the evening.
The only time they don't drink is when they're sleeping with someone else's wife.
Perhaps if school canteens served alcohol as well as offal, the vegetarian youngsters could get drunk enough to abandon their morals and tuck into a raw cow with a spoon.
Had my stay been longer than a week, I'd have been begging for offal.
Or would have considered sacrificing myself to the French education authorities as 'quality meat'.
•This article was original published on November 7, 2011