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“Ce n’est pas grave”

March 10, 2009
Locals have been enthusiastic about the opening of le vieux presbytère de Felletin ( the first, and only, Chambres d’hotes in Felletin, in central France, although they have been surprised we offer vegetarian evening meals.

The following is a typical conversation (translated from French):

“So do you live over here?”

“Yes, we moved over a year ago, and have opened a Chambres et tables d’hôtes”

“Why do all English people move over here and run bed and breakfasts?”

“I don’t know. We aren’t English, by the way: I am Welsh and my husband is half-Scottish.”

Generally, one can now observe a cloud of confusion cross their face, blown by the Northly wind of discombobulation, as many French people think Wales is a region of England, rather than a country in it’s own right.

“So you offer evening meals?”

“Yes, vegetarian evening meals: I’m a vegetarian.” I casually brush away the tumble weed, which has now drifted into the room, and is bumping, repeatedly, against my left leg.

“Hmmmm, ok…” A face is pulled, generally not an appealing one. “So what sort of thing would I cook if I was entertaining a vegetarian?”

There follows a short dialogue, describing various dishes we serve, and the various ingredients used.

“Mushrooms? You eat mushrooms? I make a dish…” whereby an entirely vegetarian recipe is given for a delightful mushroom pie, followed by a look of amazement: “…oh, that’s vegetarian, isn’t it?”

That many of the dishes they already cook are vegetarian (or by the simple omission of jambon, would be) appears to be a revelation to many of the French people we have spoken to.

Some approach eating with us, as they might if a friend had taken them to a restaurant providing food from a far flung part of the world (or even another world in an alternative universe), run by a culture very different from their own.

“So how does eating at your place work, then?” (There is a temptation, at this point, to discuss the obligatory dress code of orange and the pre-diner prayer to the Lord of Carrots, before ritually dismembering a vegetable lasagne, but this must be resisted).

“Well, we offer three courses, plus cheese, plus coffee…”

“What? Three courses of vegetables?” There is a terrified look on their face: you can almost see, reflected in their eyes, the image of us serving a plate of broccoli for starters, followed by a main course of boiled cabbage, and for dessert a lightly grilled red pepper.

When setting up the business we knew we would be offering something very different from other chambres d’hôtes in the area: we are the only establishment offering fully vegetarian/vegan food, in this department, and we have kept the guest rooms large and luxurious, retaining their original features which that back to the 18th century. We have also converted part of the house into a one bedroomed self contained apartment, available for rental.

However, we assumed that not many of the French guests, staying in our chambres d’hôtes, would eat with us (located in a small market town, there are several restaurants nearby and therefore meat-eaters do have a choice), but, happily, we have been proved wrong.

When they enquire about eating with us and we tell them the food is vegetarian, more often than not, they reply:

Ce n’est pas grave,” (that’s nothing to worry about) – hardly a glowing endorsement, and not something you’d want them to write in the visitors book, but one has to start somewhere, and the important thing is to get them round the table.

Once they have eaten with us, reactions have been exceptionally good, with people promising to return, and even suggesting we open a restaurant. We also have two regular French guests, a teacher, and a mature student. Neither are vegetarian, but very much enjoy our cooking, and have taken away recipes to try at home.

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