“My grandparents were farmers in Jura,” Elisa Perrier reminisces as I plunge a large spoon in the thick, flavorful broth of my vegetarian blanquette. “We ate simple dishes, using only what we could farm. We used very little meat, as it meant unreasonable expenses, or killing one of our rabbits.” Now Elisa is in her fifties, and in 2007 opened Le Jardin Intérieur, a health-food restaurant in Croix-Rousse, Lyon. It is 1pm in the typical high-ceilinged room. A large group just left, and now it’s just the chef and me; two chuckling women; an elderly man reading a book; and a couple from Vancouver taking pictures of their vegan panna cotta — “Almond milk, fresh rhubarb and ginger,” Elisa whispers with a smile.
Lyon is a thriving economic center, home to several universities and major companies and agencies, such as Sanofi Pasteur, Electronic Arts France, Euronews and Interpol. It has attracted an environmentally-conscious, vegan-friendly crowd. But it is more famously known as the capital of French gastronomy. It is said that if Paris is the beating heart of France, Lyon is its stomach. Lyonnaise cuisine took off in the early 20th century during the golden age of les mères (“the mothers”), women of modest upbringing like Elisa. Inspired by their local heritage and the rich dishes they used to serve in bourgeois households, they opened bistros for blue-collar workers and more well-to-do gourmets who relished this refined yet simple comfort food. Today, the quenelles de brochet sauce nantua (pike-fish quenelles), tabliers de sapeur (fried tripes), salade lyonnaise (salad garnished with lard or poultry livers, a poached egg and croutons), and mâchons (a morning dish of cured meats and tripe) have become the face of Lyonnaise tradition, guarded by renowned chefs like Paul Bocuse. So it’s not hard to believe that vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free cuisine and other modern shenanigans were not welcome in Lyonnais restaurants until very recently.
“The first two years were catastrophic,” Elisa admits. This must also be placed within the larger context of a country where cheese is an institution and ham-and-butter baguette a national symbol. Meat, poultry, and dairy constitute a large part of the French farming industry, especially in Lyon, a city surrounded with the Rhône river valley and the pastures of the Alps and Massif Central mountains.
But there is a loophole, which lies in one French adjective: gourmand. When applied to food, it means “food that anyone would love to eat because it is so sweet or rich.” When Sophie Turcano & Matthieu Dommange opened Soline back in 2006, they made sure they were targeting their customers’ gourmandise. “We like to explore foreign dishes, especially from Asia. But we also have French vegetarian-friendly dishes that involve cheese or cream, like today’s squash gratin. However, we also veganized some meat-based dishes, like blanquette, in which we replace veal with soy proteins reduced in white wine, then cooked in a sauce made of thick leek broth, herbs and soy cream. To make vegan cured meats and spicy sausages, we work with seitan, red lentils, beetroot juice, and Indian spices.”
Vegan food’s momentum hasn’t stopped. Next to Soline, New Zealander Rose Morris James opened vegetarian-friendly Konditori. Next to my office, Alison Sarette opened vegan bistro Against The Grain, which serves a vegan millefeuille that her customers adore. Domitille Sevez opened MaMi Coffee Shop and cooks a different vegetarian menu everyday. Virginie Chabert opened My Petite Factory and developed a variety of gluten- and dairy-free options on a menu that changes everyday. Now and then a very gourmand customer will have a healthy fruit-and-grains smoothie with a vega primavera roll in a homemade satay sauce, and go back to work with a take-away pear, redcurrant, and chocolate layer cake. France now even grows its own subspecies of quinoa!
The wind of new cuisine is blowing on French gastronomy, and “vegan” has become a branch of it, as it went from subversive to trendy, and young chefs convinced larger crowds of curious foodies. On May 24, the “Maître Restaurateur in French Gastronomy” Title was awarded to Willy Berton, the chef of a vegan restaurant in Nice. On April 12, a new vegan bakery opened in Paris and got the media to talk about the alchemy and culinary art behind “plant-based bakery”. That change is also coming from an unexpected direction: traditional French cafés that serve good meat and bad coffee are being challenged by “coffee shops” that serve good coffee and new, vegan-friendly cuisine. Over the past 3 years, several of them opened in Lyon, with young chefs who traveled the world and came back to France missing good coffee and “fast good” cuisine. As I sip on a cup of filter coffee (a rarity in French cafés), Charlotte Moalli, chef and owner of Les Cafetiers, pops out of the kitchen and asks Alban if she should spice up the muhammara she’ll serve as a snack on large slices of traditional bread. “In France, coffee and cakes aren’t enough.” Alban explains. “People want lunch, and they want to sit down to have it. I think that all the other chefs in Lyon who opened their coffee shops figured it out too.” On their Instagram accounts, "le foodies" confirm.
At home, vegan cooking has spread. Lyon has a thick network of organic shops organizing workshops. Instead of using eggs, my friends make chocolate mousse with whipped soft tofu, and use aquafaba to bake their cakes and meringues. Like most French kids raised in the 80s, I had meat everyday. But I was also raised in Provence, and knew early on about the benefits of an Italian and Greek-inspired vegetarian diet. Now, as an adult, I make my crêpes with almond or hazelnut milk, make Asian-inspired stir-fries with seasonal veggies from my local farmer. In my raclette (a festive meal of boiled potatoes that guests cover in raclette cheese and various ingredients), I replace the traditional assortment of cured meats with sautéed smoked tofu, boiled sweet carrots and baked cauliflower slices that we previously dipped in an oil-and-cumin preparation.
Of course, tradition is tradition, and vegans will still be met with rolling eyes and smirks in some Lyonnais restaurants. But the change is definitely there, in a younger, globe-trotting, mostly female generation of chefs who need to let their creative juices flowing. French cuisine needed a new challenge, and this is it.
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.
The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).Order now