When I first became a vegetarian in the mid 1980s, it wasn’t always easy. Non-meat restaurant meals had to be ordered in advance, “vegetarian options” were un-heard-of, and the most adventurous choices available in the supermarket were boil-in-the-bag curries. In the early 90s, I moved to a small town in France to live for a year. Every dinner invitation involved long explanations, and my well-meaning but bemused hosts would normally end up serving me either raw vegetables or omelettes. I ate so many omelettes that year that it was a long time before I could cheerfully face an egg in any form.
Nowadays, of course, Britain’s restaurant owners have got soya-savvy, and you can walk into most restaurants and order a well-thought-out, balanced vegetarian meal that doesn’t involve boiling anything in a bag. However, rural France is still lagging a little behind the drag curve when it comes to veggie food. When my husband and I bought a holiday house in deepest Gascony, south west France, the spectre of a thousand omelettes was still looming large in my mind, particularly as Gascony is the biggest foie gras production region of France, and is also very proud of its pale golden-coloured beef cattle, the Blonde d’Aquitaine. Foie gras and beef tend to dominate menus up and down the region, along with the Pyrenean mountain black pork, and duck and sausage cassoulet.
Most French restaurants are very keen to accommodate you in any way they can. However, the French just don’t tend to understand vegetarian food. In their eyes, bacon is a vegetable. Duck fat – vegetable. And don’t forget that well-known vegetable, foie gras. In practical terms, this means that when I’m in France, I can never trust the soup (meat stock), and I have to check the pedigree of anything fried (duck fat). French chefs often scatter a few lardons (bacon cubes) over my carefully-ordered salads, “because it looked boring”.
However, a lot of French dishes are naturally and deliciously vegetarian, and I’ll be sharing some of my favourites here.
A staple favourite of mine is the goats’ cheese salad. I eat this all the time, in restaurants and at home. The secret is to get really good balsamic vinegar for the dressing – it’s expensive, but well worth it. In the UK, I love The Gift of Oil’s balsamics, which add a touch of class to the simplest dishes.
Salade au Chèvre (Goats’ Cheese Salad)
For the salad :
- Bread – a wholemeal baguette-style loaf is great if you can get it. Ordinary white baguette tends to dry out and go too crunchy.
- Goats’ cheese – any type is fine
- Green salad leaves – lettuce, watercress, salad etc
- Walnut halves
For the dressing:
- Olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- Wholegrain mustard
- Preheat the grill to a medium high setting.
- Cut the bread into ½ inch slices, discarding the ends of the loaf. Toast the slices lightly on both sides, either under the grill or in a toaster.
- Arrange a couple of slices of goat’s cheese on each piece of toast, and place under a hot grill until the cheese has just started to melt.
- Meanwhile, pile salad leaves onto each plate.
- Mix the dressing by using one tablespoon of vinegar to two tablespoons of oil. For each tablespoon on vinegar, add half a teaspoon of mustard and ¼ teaspoon of sugar. Give it all a really good mix together.
- Arrange the goat’s cheese toasts round the salad, and drizzle the dressing over everything.
- Scatter a few walnut halves over the salad.
- Warm the honey for a few seconds in the microwave, then drizzle a little over the goat’s cheese.
- Do NOT add bacon!
Enjoy with a glass of chilled rosé and a nice view of the mountains.
Love, Fleur de Sel