Dining out in Europe

Dining out in Europe: why research is paramount if you’re a vegan

Some of Rosie Driffill’s vegan experiences on the continent have been less than agreeable, but a bit of forward planning and a few local tip offs have tempted her back across the water

Holidays, especially to the kind of places where slivers of prosciutto are considered too small to count as flesh, do require an extra few hours at the drawing board if you’re a vegan. Unbeknown to me during the neonatal stages of my dietary experiment, a little forethought is all it takes to stave off the most unforeseeable interpretations of vegan fare – and secure something quite delicious to boot. From halal chips to troublesome French chefs, I share some of my most surprising vegan tales from Europe to date, along with the enticing opportunities I’ve since discovered ...

France

Simply opting for a vegetarian dish ‘sans fromage’ won’t wash with our Gallic neighbours. Because most soups contain meat stock, and many bread loaves and salads are glazed with something eggy, snagging a vegan option isn’t always straightforward. Often, French chefs will make a meal out translating the word ‘vegan’ anyway, owing to the fact that – while it is a recognised term – it might suit them to mould its meaning to suit their own interpretation (a friend of mine once had a cook try to convince her that eggs without their yolks were suitable for vegans). Such horror stories are not the norm, however, and it isn’t difficult to find something vegan by virtue of France’s well-stocked bio stores and international cuisine.

Helpful tips: Of course, larger towns like Paris, Marseilles and Lille will have more on offer for vegans, no questions asked. Le Pain Quotidien, for example, serves vegan salads and delicious organic loaves, while a visit to organic food store La Vie Saine will enable you to stock up on tasty vegan fare such as hummus and quinoa – or enjoy a vegan meal in one of the adjoining restaurants. For restaurants that serve all-vegan cuisine, try the family-owned Loving Hut in Paris, or mock-American style diner M.O.B – also in the capital – for such yummy ensembles as the sauce-drenched crimini mushroom burger, or super-indulgent chocolate torte.

Fancy something a little spicier? North African cuisine is extremely well established in France, and it’s not hard to find something vegan on a Maghrebi menu: Moroccan dishes such as serrouda (saffron and chickpea puree), medfouna (flatbread with an onion and olive filling), zaalouk (cooked aubergine salad) and ful gnaoua (bean stew) are both hearty and full of flavour. Most corner shops and delis will also stock vegan-friendly tabouleh – a simple mixture of cous cous and Mediterranean vegetables –to which beans can be added to make a delicious and wholesome meal.

Of course, French dining wouldn’t be French dining without a carafe (or two) of wine adorning the table, but it’s worth doing your research before you order. As most wines are filtered using animal-derived products, checking out a site like barnivore will give you a good indication of which wines are vegan friendly, and which are best left in the bottle. Still stumped? A simple inquiry into the wine’s origins will help: try ‘la fabrication de ce vin a t-elle nécessité l'usage de produits d'origine animale?’

Germany

Major cities like Berlin and Munich, with their vegan restaurants, delis and boutiques, ought not to be associated with those slightly outdated images – tranches of pink meat and gooey cheese –that still typify German cuisine. In fact, with websites like deutschlandistvegan.de to browse, you’ll be hard pushed to find a town that doesn’t cater for vegans at all. As in the Czech Republic, you’ll also find Turkish/Levantine takeaways that serve up falafel and hummus, which is handy if you arrive somewhere on spec. That said, unless a restaurant caters specifically for vegans, it’s always worth asking those tricky questions before you order anything; take a risk, and you could end up with cubes resembling pancetta in your ‘vegetable broth,’ or sticky cocoons of gruyere nesting in your ‘plain noodles.’ 

Helpful tips: Vegan restaurants abound in Germany, perhaps more so than in France. Check out happycow.net/europe/germany/ for restaurant and B&B listings. While the best vegan options on offer in smaller towns like Paderborn might be health food stores stocking soy yogurt and tofu, most restaurants serving vegetarian dishes will usually accommodate a vegan diet: requests as simple as risotto without diary and dicke linsen (lentil broth) without butter are easy enough to meet. Sourcing some sojaquark (curd cheese made with soy instead of milk) and taking it with you as a cheese alternative will add a bit of flavour to vegetable-based dishes.

Daytime dining and snacking shouldn’t prove too complicated. Germany boasts some delicious breads (try pumpernickel, a type of rye bread with outbreaks of nuts and berries, or savoury pretzel, a salty pastry in the trademark knot-shape), which serve as a splendid accompaniment to olives and sundried tomatoes. Most large cafes offer soya milk (sojamilch); handy, as Germany’s cafe culture is not to be passed by.

Wales

Like the rest of the UK, Wales’ cafes have embraced the bean chilli jacket and the hummus sarnie (I’ve even seen olive tapenade on a menu in Bangor) with gusto; failing that, most lunchtime venues will offer baked beans on toast if you ask for it. Some traditional pubs might prove more tricky: having expressed an interest in the chips at a pub on Anglesey, when I explained my situation I was told that they were cooked in beef dripping, but the beef from which it was derived was “halal, madam, if that helps?”

Helpful tips: Ok, so not all cafes these days are adept at distinguishing between dietary requirements – but this is certainly not indicative of the nation as a whole. Wales boasts excellent and up to date vegan forums that brief the intrepid vegan traveller before they arrive. EatOutVeganWales, for example, shares information on where and how to dine out, comprising both restaurant guides and health shop listings. I’ve been surprised to find vegan food – even labelled vegan soaps – served in the remotest of locations: the cafe at South Stack Cliffs Nature Reserve on Holy Island, for example, serves up vegan chillis, soups, and smoothies. Looking for a more specific guide? Try running ‘vegan’ plus the name of your destination into any search engine – sites such as swanseavegans.org and north-wales-vegans.info are very easy to come by.

Czech Republic

A popular destination among interrailers and newlyweds, the country’s capital, Prague, is surprisingly vegan-friendly for its size. Though not the most romantic of restaurants, what Bohemia Bagel lacks in mood lighting it makes up for in vegan grub: hummus and falafel reign supreme in the sandwich department, while the coconut-based curries can be made to order without the meat. All-vegan restaurant-cum-food store Country Life serves reasonably-priced burritos, pasties and wraps, as well as soy drinks and tempting desserts. Try Middle Eastern restaurant El Emir for spicier vegan mezzes and salads.

Venturing outside the capital? Vegan food might be trickier to come by, but that’s not to say it’s impossible to stick to your diet. Stocking up in bio food stores and carrying your fare with you might prove easier than negotiating a beef-free goulash soup; questioning the ingredients of this centuries-old dish will have dirndl-clad matriarchs tapping their noses and winking themselves silly over their secret recipe.

Helpful tips: The Czech Republic has organic food stores in most major towns, such as Indian grocery Best Foods in Prague, selling all manner of interesting goodies from tomato and sunflower seed paste to tins of spiced pulses. If you are visiting major towns outside Prague, however, stocking up in advance won’t be necessary. Brno has no fewer than 13 vegetarian restaurants, of which two are vegan, while the small town of Ceske Budejovice in the South Bohemian region has two vegetarian-friendly restaurants which will adapt their veggie meals to suit vegans. The classic pizza without cheese option ought not to be overlooked in a rush or when dining in more remote places, such as railway stations.  

As for slaking your thirst, rest assured: the nation’s best-known beer, Staropramen, is suitable for vegans. For those of you who prefer non-alcoholic concoctions, give kofola a try: a rival of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, this famous sweet drink has been brewed in the Czech Republic since the 1960s.

Italy

Famed for its cheese-laden pizzas and cured meats, Italy is surprisingly vegan-friendly. What you might come across as a tourist is a variation in people’s understanding of your diet: while the term ‘vegano’ forms part of common parlance in cities like Rome and Florence (and is even used to distinguish sandwiches and salads in most well-stocked bars), its meaning is not so clear cut elsewhere. I have even had some Italians try to convince me that the term does not exist, but rest assured: labels aside, it’s not hard to eat vegan here.

As far as restaurants go, most major cities have at least one all-vegan venue: try Ops! In Rome, Bio e Te in Milan and the superbly-named Dolce Vegan in Florence.  Each serves organic beer and wine – free from animal products – along with a range of cakes, pasta dishes and salads. For a truly wholesome dining experience, visit one of the Punto Macrobiotico restaurants that have recently become a phenomenon in Italy: if you like yin-yang philosophy, simple decor and platters festooned with pulses, you’ve come to the right place. All diners require a membership card – la tessera – but it’s well worth the purchase if you plan on coming back to Italy, and while meat and fish are used sometimes, most dishes – including the dish of the day – are completely vegan.

Helpful tips: If you’re moving round Italy fast, it’s not hard to find a daily market, especially in summer, where swollen fruits, veg and glistening olives are the order of the day. All mini supermarkets and the equivalent of our corner shops stock very cheap jars of olives, chickpeas (ceci), beans (fagioli) and peas (piselli), which go really well mixed with the pre-prepared salads that come in bowl-like, recyclable containers (complete with forks)! Fresh bread, crackers, nuts and dried fruits are also very easy to come by, though items like tofu, the more popular seitan, soy yogurts and rice drinks would have to be bought from health food stores (negozi biologici). Dining out in a hurry? Most restaurants won’t flinch if you ask for a pizza without cheese (senza formaggio), but where meat or cheese constitute a dish’s centrepiece, so to speak, be prepared for staff to get a little defensive. As for the ice-cream, bars in major cities will stock at least one soy product under various auspices (look out for gelato di soia, gelato senza latte, gelato con latte di soia, or gelato ‘no milk’): pasticceria Ciuri Ciuri in Rome seems to have the most extensive range outside of vegetarian venues. Failing that, most bars will offer a wide choice of sorbets (sorbetto), equally popular among Italians in the hot summer months.

Scotland  

When it comes to dining, Scotland has always received a fairly bad press; known for its stodgy snacks and meat-based cuisine, it may well rank low on a vegan’s ‘must see’ list. That said, Scotland has done much in recent years to smash this anachronistic lens. Edinburg and Glasgow in particular warrant vegans’ attention: while Edinburg’s all-vegan Orb restaurant not only offers excellent meals, but raw food preparation classes to boot, Glasgow’s Mono bar attracts all diners by virtue of its adventurous dishes – tofu and vegetable tempura with wasabi yogurt, anyone? Decades-old Henderson’s of Edinburg ought not to be passed by: art gallery cum deli cum bistro, this venue has remained at the cutting edge of vegetarian cooking since 1962, and offers an excellent range of vegan options.

Helpful tips: A search on happycow.net/Europe/Scotland will reveal a ‘veg-friendly’ restaurant in just about every small town in the country, meaning what is lacking in an all-vegan eatery is made up for in the possibility of a simple adaptation of delicious dishes. Curried pulses, tomato-based pasta dishes and vegetable soups are not hard to come by, while Macsween of Edinburg make a haggis that is suitable for vegans. When it comes to shopping, most major supermarkets have a brilliantly furnished ‘free from’ section stocking everything from vegan custard to coconut cakes, while finding vegetarian/vegan accommodation in Scotland means securing a cruelty-free breakfast ought not to be too difficult. Need more information? Like Wales, Scotland has a wealth of vegetarian groups and information centres for those planning on staying a bit longer.

What have been your experiences as a vegan travelling abroad? Perhaps you have discovered the most vegan-friendly city in Europe . . . or the least? Get in touch and let us know!