Cycle Touring as a vegan in France can sometimes feel like a cruel exercise in aestheticism. We spent many evenings watching other cycle tourers spreading thick, calorie dense cheese onto fresh bread whilst we ate tomato pasta, again. The fact is, the vegan revolution has been slow to hit France. For Lili, it felt like a jump back in time to the 90’s, where the only veggie option at school was chips and occasionally someone would try and feed you fish because it isn’t meat right? For me, decidedly carnivorous until 6 years ago, I felt like I was being hugely restricted (which was something I’ve never felt on a vegan diet), partly to do with supermarket options, partly to do with our inability to cook anything substantial (or requiring more than two small saucepans) on our tiny gas stove.
But all is not lost! Vegan cycle touring is possible, if you’re willing to get a little bit creative and don’t mind eating a lot of tomato based products.
Here’s our run down:
Our diet wasn’t the most varied, and we stuck to a rough daily plan: Porridge with dried fruits or apple, and nuts for breakfast; baguette with chocolate/biscoff spread and banana for second breakfast (on long cycle days); sandwiches filled with mushed up beans, crisps and nuts for lunch; tomato-based pasta/curry/ potatoes and salad or endless bowls of lentil soup for dinner.
Lunch became particularly fraught. We didn’t want to cook at lunch time but vegan sandwich fillings were near impossible to come by. Our most common filling was a can of chickpeas, mushed with BBQ sauce into something that resembled a paste and crisps. It was fine and tasty enough, but after 6 weeks I never wanted to look at a chickpea again. Other options were avocado or vegan pate (which were expensive in comparison to the bean mush (2 EUR v. 30 cents), but could be found in a lot of supermarkets, we’re a big fan of the mushroom one).
The price of vegetables varied wildly, and was very different to the UK (onions, weirdly
expensive…). What was great was the amount of local, seasonal, packaging free produce available in every supermarket. We ate a lot of courgettes (usually the cheapest thing) and for curries we tended to use tinned spinach and chickpeas, or potatoes. Salads were usually tomato, cucumber and radish covered in olive oil (which is a bit cheaper than the UK). One of our top new recipes (given to us by Chris and Martina, two Swiss tourers we met on the road) was boiled potatos, covered in salt, chilli and oil. This is lush with a salad. Mustard is super cheap and goes great in this too. Occasionally we’d treat ourselves to bags of fresh local cherries or blueberries when they weren’t too expensive.
Porridge seems not to be a thing in France and the price reflects this. It is usually found in the ‘bio’ (organic) section and can be around €3, but is still probably the cheapest, most filling breakfast option. We couldn’t find affordable peanut butter anywhere.
Milk options: One thing that has caught on in France is alternative milks. We found soya and almond in almost every supermarket and we even found oat milk in Aldi.
It seems everyone in France goes to the bakery in the morning to buy fresh baguettes and we soon cottoned on that this was the best way to buy bread. Artisan boulangeries are everywhere and the bread is always great quality. You can also get half decent baguettes at most supermarkets. A good baguette and some chocolate spread became our treat on long cycle days when we needed a little boost. Most campsites offer a morning bakery service and it’s up to you if you pay the little extra for the convenience or ride into town to the bakery and save a bit of cash.
Lidl and Aldi were common in the parts of France we cycled through, and remain the cheaper option for food. Buying locally is a huge thing in France (esp.veg, see above) and it didn’t feel like we compromised on quality when buying from cheaper shops.
Carrefour supermarkets and markets can be found everywhere, but they are a bit more expensive, especially the city versions. Intermarche have a similar price point.
Monoprix is found in cities and is a bit like Marks and Spencer, in that they are often a clothes store with a supermarket attached. Like M&S not all shops have a supermarket attached. They had a good range of vegan products but were a bit more expensive.
Super U and Leclerc are usually larger megastores and were often a medium price point.
In general, hypermarkets had a large-ish selection of vegan goods and smaller stores had have nothing specifically vegan at all, but you could always get the basics.
Accidently Vegan Junk (aka, little lifesavers)
Lindt Recette Originale (Noir Extra Fondant) – Really great vegan chocolate which you can buy in huge family packs (5 bars) for about €3. We ate way too much of this and had to cut down after it cause a significant dent in our bank balance…
Palmiers – Little french puff pasty biscuits which are usually vegan (check the packet). Great when you need some fat and sugar after a long day cycling.
Crisps – Obviously crisps are a go to when we’re struggling to fill our calorie deficit on tour. Flavours which are usually vegan: Nature (ready salted), Bolognese, Sel et Vinaigre (Salt and vinegar). Sometimes paprika crisps are vegan too. Lidl (as of July 2019) do a huge bag of sweet chilli tortilla chips which is vegan and delicious and cheap.
Crusty Nuts – Otherwise known as cacahuètes enrobees, these are peanuts coated in a crunchy flavoured shell (you might have eaten them in the UK). They became a staple for us on long days as they provided a hit of protein, salt and sugar which was definitely needed at times. Lidl do the cheapest options.
Ratatouille – You can get huge tins of this pretty much anywhere and though it won’t win you the love of any harsh Parisian food critics, or re-establish your estranged father’s restaurant’s excellent culinary reputation, it is a good food when you need some veg and don’t want to cook.
Biscoff Spread – A classic vegan biscuit spread. We found this almost everywhere and it was very reasonably priced. Great on fresh baguette.
Nocciolata Dairy Free Chocolate Spread – We found a few vegan chocolate spreads but this was by far the superior spread. Tastes just like nutella, try not to finish it too quickly.
Tinned Vegetable Ravioli – We were surprised to find this in supermarkets as a cheap vegan option. I’m not going to lie, its not the best tasting thing, but it’s a good emergency supply when you just cant be arsed to cook
Potential Pitfulls (we messed up, so you don’t have to)
Hummus – On a particularly tiring day cycling to Tours, I popped into a Carrefour Market for lunch. We’d run out of food and were desperate for anything we could fill a sandwich with. Lo and behold, the first hummus I’d seen in France. Half way through eating it, I realised I hadn’t checked the ingredients. Surely, hummus, the vegan staple, wouldn’t betray us? FROMAGE FRAIS. They’d put fucking yogurt in hummus. We didn’t know what else to do because we were starving and this hummus cost like €4 so we ate in anyway and vowed to be more careful checking the packets in future.
Pancakes– OK, this is an obvious one, pancakes are traditionally made with eggs and milk after all, but this is more a cautionary tale of what not to do when faced with the brilliant hospitality of a B&B owner. For my birthday, we booked a little wooden caravan which was part of a small, family owned B&B. The price of the room included breakfast and on arrival we were asked enthusiastically when we would be joining the host in the morning. In a social panic, neither of us felt comfortable explaining that we were vegan, we were being offered this service by somebody who was passionate about their work and we freaked out about the etiquette (veganism, after all, is not normal in France). This was a big mistake. Instead, I told the owner I was allergic to milk and would be happy with bread and jam and fruit (which seems to be the normal French breakfast). We arrived the first morning to find french toast made specifically for Lili (who carefully pocketed it) but the owner seemed upset to not be able to offer me a cooked breakfast. The day after, we came down to find an excited host who had bought soya milk and made pancakes for us. She watched expectantly as we took tentative bites, smiled, and proceeded to eat the minimum number of pancakes necessary to appease our obliging and enthusiastic host. It didn’t feel great.
Best Vegan Finds
Bio Shops (Orleans, Dole) – Bio shops are the best place to find vegan alternatives like cheese and meat. We got ourselves a huge haul one day in Orleans and sat pic-nicking on a bench outside Jean d’Arc’s house. My favourite was the From Jamy cheese – a fermented soy cheese with garlic and thyme. Lili’s was the seaweed taramasalata, which tasted like the real thing. Bio shops were the only place we could easily find tofu, fake meats, fake cheeses and other speciality products.
The Copper Branch (Angers)
– For my birthday we stopped into this amazing restaurant which is part of a Canadian chain. The food was amazing. We had poutine (handcut chips, covered in a delicious gravy, with vegan cheese curds), a smoked tempeh BBQ sandwich, a burger with caramelised onions and mustard and, the pièce de résistance, 6 buffalo soya drumsticks with a garlic mayo. I have never tasted anything as good as these little soya things.
Velicious (Strasbourg) – We visited Velicious on our last cycle tour, but it is definitely up there as one of the best vegan restaurants we’ve ever been too. They do an outstanding charcuterie platter made up of homemade cheeses, meats, potato salad, figs and lots of other little bits to be spread on fresh bread. For desert, there are traditional French gateaux veganised and too good to be believed.
Best Unexpected Discovery
One of our big struggles when cycle touring is how much more waste we end up producing – unlike at home, we can’t buy in bulk, we can’t always find plastic free products and we eat so so so many packets of crisps. One of the unexpected and very pleasant discoveries in France was not just larger supermarket’s commitments to less plastic and the lack of plastic packaging on veg, but a chain of zero waste shops we first discovered in Angers called ‘Day by Day’. They had a whole range of things in zero waste dispensers, always v.reasonably priced, as well as stocking toiletries, cloth bags, toothbrushes etc. We found another in Orleans and were able to find nooch in both! (It was so good to have a cheesey taste to cut through the endless tomato dishes we were making.) There was another different zero waste shop in Dole, and they seem to be increasingly popular in France. If you’re touring, we’d recommend bringing along some cotton bags as gravity dispensers are pretty common in supermarkets and bio shops too and they allow you to minimise your waste, as well as only buying what you need!