Deus est anima brutorum’
(God is the soul of animals)
Will the French ever eat Quorn?
I’m not sure if the French have a word for Vegan, rather a contemptuous sneer or Gaelic shrug in its place. They haven’t got used to the Idea of a vegetarian let alone a Vegan. Here in the Ariege a Vegan might as well be from Mars, or worse Paris.
It seems to me that, as far as many French people are concerned, vegetables are cattle fodder or garnish. Yet I have noticed a strange singularity here in the Ariege and it is this; they love their vegetable plots, it’s all part of the hunter gatherer, peasant ethos. Also, bizarrely, supermarket shelves and market stalls groan under the weight of muddy carrots and brazen leeks. Brazen leeks? Whom, I ask is eating them?
For example the plot of land we lend to a couple of old gardeners, well into their twilight years by the way, is host to an abundance of vegetables all year round. But neither of them would actually eat the fruit of their labour, no they do it for the fun of it. They would rather sustain themselves on a diet of duck cooked in fat and the kind of cheese that will, quite literally, blow your socks off, than let a courgette pass their lips! It’s enough to give my arteries hope.
A friend once challenged her family – visiting from abroad – to find one scrap of vegetation on any plate, on any terrace, outside any restaurant in the medieval town of Mirepoix other than lettuce. Suffice to say they didn’t. It’s believed that the last time a vegetable was seen in Mirepoix it was winging its way towards the stocks. Who, you may ask was in the stocks on that historic day? Well a young Voltaire, the Famous French Philosopher and vegetarian that’s who. He was heard to scream ‘Deus est anima brutorum’ as a rotting aubergine found itself hovering between irony and collision. Source reference– my twisted mind.
Many moons ago my wife and I were travelling in Gascogne and after days of gorging on duck confit, ostrich steaks and beef daube we asked politely in one eatery, if we could possibly have something vegetarian. The waiter, with a nonchalant flick of his tea towel, gave us an agreeable ‘Bien sûr’ before retreating to the kitchen with what could only be referred to as a cantor. Soon enough he reappeared, his cantor intact, and with a resounding ‘Voilà’ he placed two salads before us comprising of foie gras and duck entrails! Well it did have the word salad in the title.
The lack of vegetarian options on the menu is not all that surprising when you consider that there is only 500,000 known veggies s in France as opposed to over three million in the UK. I have to, probably singlehandedly; change this notion that meal equals meat but it will be an uphill struggle. The French government have banned Vegan food from appearing on school menus – public and private – and have the wheels in motion to prevent them from showing up on hospital, care home or kindergarten menus too.
When you consider the healthy export of meat from France to Europe and beyond, let alone the domestic market, it’s no surprise the powers that be would rather a nation of carnivores than herbivores.
France has Europe’s largest population of beef cattle, with 25 different breeds raised solely for the production of meat. The country accounts for one fifth of Europe’s total beef production, and exports 35% of its beef. It is also the continent’s leading poultry producer with nearly 2m metric tonnes every year. Source reference – Global meat news.
Recently while researching Vegan philosophy and the wholesale exploitation of non humans and their excretions, I was rudely torn from my rumination by the shrill ding dong of the door bell. The dog, whom moments before was sleeping in an almost catatonic state by the fire, jumped into action. On opening the front door I was presented with a dead rabbit by a local gardener and friend. The rabbit had been running amok amongst the radishes for weeks, the gardener had finely caught his nemesis. He pushed the poor creature towards me as a gift, a gift I couldn’t refuse. I wondered briefly if this wasn’t a sign from God, there I was; only moments before trying to justify my own carnivorous behaviour, when the next thing I know I’m clutching a rabbit complete but for his life. I shook off the notion but the truth is I did feel rather sorry for the poor thing, a city boy’s response to the origins of food. I accepted the gift and returned to my cosy nook by the fire only to find the dog, content with his attempts to scare off yet another intruder, sprawled out like a spatch-cock in my chair! Rather than disturb him, he can be a cantankerous mongrel, I stood by the window and thought of Thumper.
Thinking of rabbits my mind wondered off to Budapest, as it is want to do, and to my trip there many moons ago. I had visited the capital before the fall of the Soviet Union on a self funded reconnaissance mission to gather vital information on their women and food. On Easter Sunday, after an evening of Goulash and lechery, I took a stroll to the city zoo. There I happened upon the bird of prey enclosure, the cell floor was festooned with the remnants of baby rabbits, their insides out, as it were! A bloody mass of carcases, tendons and tiny unwanted spleens glittered in the afternoon sunshine. After closer inspection I noticed a single bunny quivering with fear, overlooked by the feeding birds or just kept for later I don’t know.
Local children saw him too and began to cry before being dragged off to the monkey cage. I wondered if the children had any pity for the now consumed brethren of little bunny or was it sympathy reserved just for the fate of this lone soldier? The birds should have been the main beneficiaries of our compassion; they were kept incarcerated and flightless amongst the fake branches of an inadequate enclosure. Still it was proof enough to me that animals feel fear, that little creature was shaking like a puppy having a crap.
Watching this spectacle did not stop me eating rabbit stew or any other kind of carrion but it did highlight something else, to do our upmost to prevent unnecessary cruelty to animals bred for food or otherwise.
Now it’s nay on impossible to feed an ever growing population with meat reared cruelty free, battery chickens, chickens that never see natural sunlight, that are kept in RSPCA approved conditions even, don’t appear that happy to me. It would be wonderful if all our meat led a carefree life, like my rabbit, before making that transition from frolicking beast to burger. It’s not going to happen, so the answer, rather than do what the Vegan would suggest and stop eating it completely, is a reduced meat diet. A reduced meat diet allows the consumer the option of buying quality meat bred with compassion and a gateway into the wonderful world of vegetarian and vegan cookery. Making meat consumption a luxury as opposed to an indispensable dietary component, as it was in the good old days, should satisfy everyone, well maybe not the vegan, she’s chasing an impossible dream I believe.
But will the French sign up to my plan? There are a few signs of hope flickering in the gloom. There is a lovely, albeit “hippyfied”, vegan restaurant in Mirepoix that serves homemade vegan fodder with an Indian twist. Also there is Le Rendez-vous in Leran that always offers a vegetarian option and seems to be rather popular with the French. The French here are crying out for something different and are, once put on the spot, rather open to new tastes and ideas; they just need a little nudge in the right direction.