I have only ever met one French vegetarian; he worked at a crêperie in Aurillac where we ate in 2016. He assured us that life is getting easier for non-meat-eaters in France, albeit from a low base. Certainly, my experiences of eating in France with a veggie ‘other half’ is that it can still be very restrictive.
It’s still not entirely unknown for waiters to be incredulous, and while vegetarian options do seem to figure increasingly on menus, close inspection suggests reluctance rather than comprehension, with limited choice and a degree of misunderstanding. More than once, for instance, my wife has ordered meat-free options only for them to appear with lardons or similar – which apparently do not count as ‘meat’ in the French gastronomic mind….
Equally, the matter can be restrictive when it comes to home cooking. Stewing up a great, rich casserole in a Le Creuset is one of my favourite forms of cooking – something of which there are a good many excellent French versions – and all the more so at this time of year when hearty food and a pleasurable preparation process are good buttresses against inclemency. But it is not so easy to produce such a dish for one – the quantity issue rears its ugly head – and there is always the matter of what to produce for my fellow-diner.
So I was delighted to find a recipe a year or two ago for a mushroom bourgignon, which I have now made a number of times and have tweaked to improve it further. I found that using tiny whole carrots is preferable to sliced larger ones, while early on it struck me that adding chestnuts would be a good move, and so it has proved. This year’s innovation has been to serve it with a creamy potato gratin, which complements the tangy red-wine flavour of the main dish excellently.
My wife has been vegetarian for decades, and she has forgotten what meat is really like – as evidenced when she intermittently observes that some non-meat item “tastes just like chicken/bacon/fish”; for me, a more pressing issue is that meaty dishes most often do not survive the transition to vegetarian equivalent. The whole point of a big, gloopy casserole is that the meat is the star and main determinant of the texture, flavour and consistency of the whole. In any case, this is not a helpful approach to vegetarianism – which is why we eat so much Italian food…
But this bourgignon is an exception; using whole shallots, small mushrooms and chestnuts gives it a decent texture, while the use of a red wine with them, a good rich flavour where the absence of meat can almost be overlooked.
I wonder if it will catch on in France.
As always I offer the following not a definitive recipe, but as a guide for experimentation and further research…
4-5 small shallots per person
Handful of button chestnut mushrooms per person
Handful of (vacuum-packed?) whole sweet chestnuts per person
4-6 small whole carrots per person
200mm fruity red wine
1 tbsp of plain flour
2-3 tbsp passata or less of tomato puree
150ml vegetable stock
1 clove garlic
Large pinch dried thyme
Salt and pepper
It is probably best to prepare the gratin before starting the casserole. (see below)
Prepare the shallots, carrots and mushrooms by peeling/wiping as appropriate.
In a deep heavy casserole dish, melt the butter and a little of the oil. Sauté the carrots for five or more minutes until they start to soften a little.
Add the shallots and continue to sauté.
Add the flour and tomato puree and stir until the vegetables are coated. Add the red wine and simmer until reduced by about half.
Add the garlic, vegetable stock and thyme; season to taste and leave on a low simmer for around 20-30 minutes until the casserole thickens to taste.
While this is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in a separate pan, and add to the casserole at the same time as the chestnuts, around five minutes before the end.
Heat oven to 180C.
Slice the potatoes very thinly (3mm max) One large potato per person usually suffices; waxy tend to be better for this.
Wipe the inside of a deep oven proof dish with garlic.
Layer the potatoes in the oven-proof dish; dot butter and sprinkle small amounts of salt and pepper.
When the top is reached, dot with a little more butter, and pour in a 50-50 mix of cream and milk to just reach the top layer.
Place in oven, on a baking tray or similar, as it is likely there will be overspill.
Cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour until the potatoes yield to the knife test.
Serve with fresh bread and the rest of the red wine.