France in general is not especially vegan friendly, and Norman cuisine in particular is dominated by meat, cheese and cream.
Add to the mix the fact that many restaurants would be closed over the holidays, and that I was travelling with an omnivore who was keen to try some of the local specialties and thus would want to eat at least some of our meals in traditional Norman restaurants, and I knew that my options would probably be fairly limited.
Which is why I decided this would be a good opportunity to continue the overnight oatmeal experiments I had begun in Constance. I wasn’t sure what I would end up eating throughout the day, but at least I knew I could start each day off right with a comforting bowl of oats.
Our journey began with a Christmas Eve flight to Paris, then a jaunt across the city on the metro to Gare St. Lazare, followed by a train ride to Rouen, the capital of Normandy.
I was already pretty hungry by the time we boarded the plane, and even after devouring half the bag of the Thai rice crackers that I’d given to Nick as a stocking stuffer (whoops!), I knew I would still want to eat something more substantial before arriving at our final destination late that evening.
It was then that I saw this advertisement hanging off the back of the seat in front of me:
"Winter Warmers" sounded like just the thing! Both the tomato soup and the couscous and lentil pot were marked with a “V” to indicate that they were vegetarian. When the flight attendant eventually came by offering food and drinks, I asked if the couscous and lentils contained milk or eggs.
He had no idea, so I asked if I could check the ingredients myself. He handed me the carton and then promptly ran off down the aisle, never to return. It only took a quick glance at the ingredients list to confirm that it was indeed vegan, but by that time he was already gone.
Which meant that I ended up with a free carton of couscous and lentils (thanks for the Christmas present, EasyJet!) but had no way to eat it, as that would require adding hot water first.
So, I stuffed the carton in my bag, deciding it would be part of my emergency food stash for the rest of the trip, and figured I would try my luck again once we got to Paris. At Gare St. Lazare there were a number of take-away shops all offering a similar selection of sandwiches and pastries, none of which were vegan.
There was one called class'croute though, that had the word “nature” written in large lettering on the wall, which made it look slightly more promising than the others. And sure enough, their sandwich selection included “le paisible”, which consisted of grilled vegetables, black olive tapenade, tomato and arugula. Excellent! This trip was now off to a good start.
I also grabbed a small, bottled fruit smoothie to be used as soaking liquid for my oatmeal the following morning. I’d been hoping for mango juice, but a mango and passion fruit smoothie sounded close enough, and considering that I didn’t know what would be open in Rouen on Christmas Eve (nothing, as it turned out) I thought I’d better take it.
So, about the oatmeal. The logistics of planning my oatmeal for the trip was complicated by the fact that (a) we were flying, which made it difficult to bring supplies with me from Geneva, and (b) it was Christmas, which meant that all the shops would be closed when we arrived. But hey, they don’t call it the Normandy Christmas Challenge for nothing! OK, so I’m the only one calling it that, but never mind.
I had some fresh mango that I could have brought with me, but I knew there was a small chance that my bag would be searched by customs officers upon arrival at the Paris airport, in which case any fresh produce would most certainly be confiscated and might also land me a hefty fine. So I figured the safest option was to bring some canned mango instead.
Well, that caused problems on the other end when I went through security in Geneva before boarding the plane (we were bringing only carry-on luggage, so the can was in my bag along with everything else).
Apparently, the security staff at the Geneva airport have done the calculations and determined that a 425 gram can of mangos in water contains more than 100 ml of liquid and is therefore not allowed.
If you’re wondering how an unopened can of mango that has obviously not been tampered with could possibly pose a terrorist threat, well, I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t think the security officer did either, as she was apologetic about it and seemed to realize that it was a rather ridiculous rule she was being asked to enforce.
In the end, she agreed that I could open the can, pour out the water into the trash, and take the mango slices with me in one of the plastic ziplock bags I had prepared for the rest of our liquids.
Not pretty, but it’ll work! Once we got to the hotel in Rouen I added half the mango and half the smoothie to a Tupperware container that I had filled with rolled oats, chia seeds and shredded coconut before we left.
The next morning I woke up to a delicious serving of very mango-flavoured oats! Which was lucky because, as I’d suspected, there was absolutely nothing open on Christmas morning, apart from the butchers and fishmongers.
In our wanderings around the very quiet town we stumbled on a kebab stand that sold falafel, so we knew weren’t going to starve.
All the restaurants we saw were closed though, so come lunchtime we were minutes away from having falafel sandwiches for Christmas lunch when, at the last minute, we decided to make a final search down Rue des Augustins, which was mentioned in the Lonely Planet as a street with lots of ethnic restaurants.
Sure enough, the street was filled with Indian, Moroccan, Afghan and other establishments, but their presumably non-Christian owners must have decided that it wasn’t worth opening, because all their shutters were closed. And then, at the very end of the street, we suddenly saw what appeared to be lights and movement inside this place [UPDATE 3 August 2018: Wang Shun Restaurant is now closed].
So, Chinese for Christmas lunch it was! I had the tofu in garlic sauce, which was silken tofu covered in soy sauce with diced garlic.
This was accompanied by a plate of sautéed Chinese vegetables (bamboo shoots, mung bean sprouts, wood ear mushrooms, etc.) and white rice.
The vegetarian section of the menu was pretty small compared to the other sections, but there were still several options to choose from. It also might be worth asking if they could serve the dishes from the other sections with tofu instead of the advertised meat.
The dessert menu, on the other hand, was full of vegan options. This is one thing I love about Chinese restaurants; whereas in Western countries desserts almost inevitably contain milk or eggs, if not both, milk products are very seldom used in Chinese cuisine.
And, while the Chinese do cook with eggs, they don’t seem to make their way into desserts that often. This is probably because there is no real baking tradition in China, and, to be honest, there is no real dessert tradition either. In China, the end of a meal might be signalled with some fresh fruit, but that’s about it.
But of course, Chinese restaurants outside of China have always adapted their dishes to suit local tastes, and Wang Shun is no exception. Thus, the dessert menu included a large selection of sorbets, fruit salad, sticky rice balls with sesame seeds, and even chocolate spring rolls!
In the end, I chose the banana flambé fritters. The most exciting part of the meal was when the waiter brought the dessert over to the table, lit the fritters on fire, quickly scooped up the meiguilu jiu (a type of alcohol flavoured with rosewater) with a spoon and repeatedly poured it over the flaming bananas.
I really loved this dish, but it did have a strong alcohol taste to it. I had intended to share it with Nick, but he found the alcohol off-putting, so I ended up eating most of it myself. So, while we would have been content with a falafel sandwich for Christmas lunch, we were thrilled to end up with a three-course meal instead!
In our search for an open restaurant at lunch time I had spied a woman unlocking the door of this place, the Etoile d’Or:
When I asked if they were open, she replied that they were closed for lunch but would be opening in the evening, so we gladly returned there later that night for dinner. Though it is set in one of the traditional, half-timbered houses typical of Rouen, L’Etoile d’Or is actually a Moroccan restaurant serving a variety of couscous and tajine dishes.
Although the couscous dishes included in the set menu all contained meat, the owner was happy to let me substitute these with a vegetarian version. So, this would be my second three-course meal of the day. A bit excessive, yes, but it was Christmas after all. My dinner began with a starter of asparagus in vinaigrette dressing, which turned out to be white asparagus.
These were obviously from a jar rather than fresh, which is fair enough, as asparagus is certainly not in season in December in these parts. The dressing looked suspiciously like mayonnaise, but this is just because it was a mustard vinaigrette; the owner double-checked and assured me that it did not contain any eggs or milk.
As for the couscous, though, he warned me that the vegetables had been cooked together with the meat that would be served to other customers. I was very appreciative that he had told me this, as I realize it might be a deal-breaker for other vegetarians or vegans, but personally I did not see this as a reason not to order the dish.
My aim as a vegan is not to attain some level of personal purity by avoiding all contact with animal products (this would be impossible anyway in the modern world). Rather, my aim is to increase peace and joy in the world and decrease pain, violence and suffering as much as possible through my daily choices.
The meat was going to be cooked and eaten by other patrons of the restaurant anyway; whether or not I ate the vegetables that had been cooked with it would not change that. The best I could do was to ensure that what I chose to eat did not cause any additional killing or suffering.
That being said, there was admittedly a discernible meaty taste to the dish, so if that disgusts you then you’re probably best off not eating here. The serving of couscous, by the way, was enormous:
As much as I hate wasting food, I only managed to finish about half of the couscous and maybe three quarters of the vegetables. In hindsight, ordering the set menu was really not necessary; the main dish alone would have been more than enough.
For dessert, the owner recommended this from his selection of Middle Eastern pastries:
It was the only one that he could say with certainty did not contain milk or eggs (it did contain honey though). All in all, it was a very pleasant Christmas dinner, and the owner was particularly friendly and accommodating.
Later that night, when I returned desperately seeking a working Internet connection so I could call my Mom for Christmas, he went out of his way to try to find a way for me to use his personal connection and was even prepared to let me borrow his iPad! Way to show some Christmas spirit, and he probably doesn't even celebrate Christmas himself.
The next morning it was time for another oatmeal experiment, which was similar to the previous one except that I added a bit more liquid (by diluting the smoothie with water) and also threw in a banana for good measure. It was perfect!
Before we left Rouen I wanted to check out this natural food store we had seen the day before:
Located near the cathedral at 3 Rue du Petit Salut, it is simply called “Natural” and carries the types of things you would expect to find in a health food store: some organic fruits and vegetables, plant-based meats, bulk bins with seeds, grains and dried fruits, and a variety of chips, crackers, cookies, spreads and dips, etc.
I would have loved to have tried their vegan nutella, but I knew I’d never get it past security at the airport. Still, I came away with a nice stash of snacks and treats: an organic Norman apple, a bar of dark chocolate with confit lemon and ginger, some sesame bars and a pack of waffle cookies.
I also picked up a bag of oat groats to feed my oatmeal addiction. While rolled oats are easy to find in grocery stores in Geneva, steel-cut oats are not. I read somewhere that you can “steel cut” oat groats yourself by chopping them up in the food processor, so I’m going to give this a try.
We were catching a train to Bayeux at noon and knew we would be travelling throughout lunch time. I had actually planned to just munch on all the snacks I’d just bought, but on the way to the train station Nick stopped at a bakery called Yvonne to grab a sandwich, and I noticed they had a salad bar where you could choose your own ingredients. I loaded mine up with cucumbers, sun-dried tomatoes, corn, grated carrots and a chunky tomato sauce on a bed of mixed lettuce. It was positively scrumptious and quite filling!
When we arrived in Bayeux, I discovered that Nick had surprised me by reserving a room in a chateau just outside the town. Now, we are not the kind of people who make a habit of staying in chateaux, but this was a lovely splurge and the perfect relaxing getaway for a short Christmas break.
The beautiful Chateau de Bellefontaine is set in a 200-year-old park with a lake that is home to geese, swans and many different species of duck. I loved being able to watch these guys from our window:
When the friendly staff member who showed us to our room asked if we would be eating dinner there, I said no because I had already looked at the menu and seen that it was full of nothing but fish and meat-based dishes. She offered to ask the chef if he could prepare a vegan dish for me, and it turned out that this was not a problem.
So the lesson learned is, don’t hesitate to ask for what you want, no matter how vegan-unfriendly the menu looks! I ended up with this beautifully-presented mix of raw and cooked vegetables, with a slightly out of place but oh, so welcome dollop of guacamole on the side:
OK, so the portions weren’t huge, but hey, they never are in fancy French restaurants, are they? And I didn’t mind anyway because: (a) I had eaten way too much the day before, and (b) I had this panforte waiting for me upstairs in our room:
Panforte is an Italian dessert traditionally eaten at Christmas time. It is a very rich and dense cake made of nuts and dried fruits, kind of like a fruit cake, only a million times better. And this one was chocolate flavoured, which made it at least a trillion times better than fruit cake.
I had noticed this accidentally vegan panforte in the Rome airport at the end of our trip there last month and had grabbed it on a whim, intending to save it for Christmas. I brought it along on this trip, figuring that if we didn’t find any decent food on Christmas day we would at least have a little something special to enjoy, but then after all the delicious food we ate that day I had completely forgotten about it.
Luckily, panforte is, like fruit cake, a very sturdy type of dessert, so unlike the lebkucken from Constance, it held up well in my backpack. And yes, we showed up with backpacks to a four-star hotel in a French chateau. Don't judge.
My oatmeal breakfast for the next two days was a variation on The Oatmeal Artist’s applesauce overnight oatmeal recipe. I had brought along a couple of these single-serving compotes made from five different fruits, though apple still seemed to be the dominant flavour. I would normally hesitate to purchase something with such wasteful packaging, but as each pack was 90 ml I knew they would be just small enough to make it through airport security.
On Saturday we travelled from Bayeux to Mont St. Michel, and, since our train was an hour late, right around lunchtime we ended up stuck in the very sleepy little town of Pontorson with a couple of hours to kill. Although it’s just 9 kilometres away from Mont St. Michel, which draws in millions of tourists every year, not many of them seem to be trickling in to Pontorson.
Several of the establishments on the main street had closed up shop, and the town definitely looked like it had seen better days. The few restaurants that were open all seemed to offer a similar selection of pastas and pizzas, so we settled on one called Illico Pizza Presto.
I didn’t have huge expectations, especially since I could see that the pizza oven was not wood fired, but I was pleasantly surprised by the warm and filling meal I had here. It started off with the tomato focaccia, which, admittedly, was not real focaccia. It seemed to be the same dough used for the pizza bases, with some tomato, basil and oregano on top.
Still, it was quite tasty, though it probably would have been better paired with a pasta dish such as the garlic spaghetti rather than with a pizza, which is how I ordered it. The waiter/owner didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked for a vegetarian pizza with no cheese, which came loaded with fresh mushrooms, bell peppers, tomatoes and onions.
The white, blurry splotches in the photo are actually waves of steam rising off the pizza, which was a welcome sight considering how cold and windy it was outside!
The white, blurry splotches in the photo are actually waves of steam rising off the pizza, which was a welcome sight considering how cold and windy it was outside!
At Mont St. Michel we stayed in a hotel called Auberge de la Baie, within walking distance of the stop where shuttlebuses pick up tourists to take them across the causeway to the Mont. The weather was quite blustery by the time we arrived at the hotel that evening after visiting the Mont, so the thought of being able to eat at the hotel restaurant and not have to venture outside again was very inviting.
Again, the menu consisted solely of meat and seafood dishes, and again the staff assured me that the chef could whip up something vegan for me. Based on my short conversation with the receptionist I was expecting a few vegetables over a plate of rice, but I was completely blown away by what I got.
When we arrived at our scheduled dinner time, the waitress proposed a full three-course dinner. Each plate was more beautiful than the last, and all were equally delicious. The adventure began with a tomato salad dressed with a mustard vinaigrette:
Followed by this intricate and creative mix of vegetable dishes:
And finally, this fresh and luscious fruit salad:
I was particularly impressed with the main course. I’m not even sure what all the components were, but I can tell you there were lentils, a mix of mushrooms and zucchini, some kind of creamy leafy green, a purée of what I think was carrots, and a purple root vegetable. In any case, it was gorgeous!
At this point we had already seen everything we had planned to see on our trip to Normandy, so we made a last-minute decision to pass through Rennes, the capital of the neighbouring province of Brittany, on our way back to Paris.
Much like Rouen, the capital of Normandy, the old town of Rennes is dotted with medieval, half-timbered houses that look like they are about to fall over at any moment. As beautiful as the town was, though, the chilly December weather made it difficult to enjoy being outdoors for long periods of time, so we soon found ourselves searching for an inviting place where we could fill our bellies and camp out in the warmth for awhile.
I had seen a few listings on Happy Cow for some veg-friendly restaurants that looked promising, but unfortunately none of them were open on Sundays. We even stumbled across this place purely by accident:
I ordered the estivale, which was the name given to one of their tartines (open-faced sandwiches) and consisted of hearty toasted bread topped with eggplant, bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and gigantic marinated artichoke hearts! Have I ever told you how much I love artichoke hearts?
It’s normally served with parmesan cheese, but it was no problem to leave it off. It just meant I had to wait slightly longer so they could make it fresh, which sounded like a very good thing in any case, and I was in no hurry to leave.
Oddly enough, the tartine was served not with French fries or some other form of potato, but rather with a side salad of lettuce, carrot and mustard vinaigrette dressing. But I was so excited about the sandwich that I hardly noticed the side dish.
So, it turns out that the Normandy Christmas Challenge was hardly a challenge at all. I was certainly not in any danger of going hungry at any point on the trip; every day I delved into a wide variety of truly delicious meals.
I do have to admit, though, that in my eternal search for naturally vegan local specialties, this time I came up empty handed. Well, nearly empty handed. I did discover Norman apples and the local tipples made from them:
Pictured on the left is a glass of calvados, a fiery apple brandy named after the département in Lower Normandy where the town of Bayeux is located. A shot of this is guaranteed to warm you up after a cold day of December sightseeing. Pictured on the right is a glass of local cider, a much milder drink that can be either dry or sweet and full of fruity apple flavour.
And, last but not least, I present to you the trou normand:
The name, literally translated as “Norman hole”, actually refers to a pause between courses in a meal. During this pause, a shot of calvados is downed to aid in digestion and to cleanse the palate in preparation for the next course.
On festive occasions, the calvados is often served poured over a scoop of apple sorbet, as pictured here. I actually experienced this delightful concoction at Un Amour de Pomme de Terre, in Brittany, but it was listed on the menu as La Normandy, so it still counts as a Norman specialty in my book.
Now, I will grant you that a nomad cannot live on apples, ice cream and liquor alone, and that, unlike in places like Greece and Italy, you will be hard-pressed to find enough vegan local specialties to allow you to live exclusively on local fare when in Normandy. If you do know of any that I’ve missed, please share them in the comments below!
I would have loved to have discovered more naturally vegan Norman dishes to share with you, but rather than viewing this as a failure I look at it as a wonderful opportunity to plant seeds by encouraging local chefs to think outside the box and evolve.
Using their culinary expertise, they can build on the foundation of Norman traditions and create a new vegan cuisine that, while retaining its distinctive French flare, is better for the Earth, better for the animals and better for the humans who eat it.
The chefs at Chateau de Bellefontaine in Bayeux and Auberge de la Baie in Mont St. Michel have already proven this to be possible. Now it’s your turn to challenge others to follow suit.