Frogs’ legs, foie gras and steak so blue you can still hear it mooing . . . France is a nation known for its carnivorous cuisine.
For decades vegetarianism — or (sacré bleu!) veganism — has been a dirty word. In 2011 the French government tried to ban it in schools, and in 2018 a farmers’ union launched a meat-eating campaign with the slogan: ‘To save a peasant farmer, eat a vegan.’
But times are changing. Just ask judges at the Michelin Guide, who this week awarded a coveted Michelin star to a vegan restaurant near Bordeaux — making it the first ever to receive the honour.
ONA, which stands for ‘Origine Non Animale’ (Non-Animal Origin), is a fine-dining venue run by Claire Vallée, a self-taught chef who is on a mission to transform her nation’s eating habits.
Sarah Rainey (pictured) attempted to recreate a series of Michelin-starred vegan recipes
Claire, 41, a glamorous former archaeologist, opened her restaurant in the seaside resort of Ares in 2016. Diners at ONA — where a seven-course tasting menu comprising sea lettuce, fir, seaweed and tonka beans costs £52 — have given it glowing reviews, declaring its dishes ‘outstanding’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘exquisite’.
And Claire – who said she was so shocked to get the call from Michelin that she ‘felt like she got hit by a train’ — is leading a culinary revolution that is quietly spreading across the country. ‘I wanted to show that through vegan food and other cooking techniques, there are infinite gourmet possibilities,’ she says.
There’s no denying her food, with its foams and flourishes, looks impressive — but is it good enough to deserve a Michelin star? Using Claire’s recipes published on the website, rue89bordeaux.com, SARAH RAINEY attempts to rustle up a three-course meal to find out just how tasty vegan food can be . . .
ONA, which stands for ‘Origine Non Animale’ (Non-Animal Origin), is a fine-dining venue run by Claire Vallée (pictured), a self-taught chef who is on a mission to transform her nation’s eating habits
STARTER: CAULIFLOWER CONFIT WITH SAFFRON & SEAWEED TARTARE
INGREDIENTS: Half a cauliflower, a vegetable broth infused with lemongrass and saffron, and a salad of fresh seaweed, capers, pickles, onions and dressing. The dish is garnished with spinach and Jerusalem artichoke slices.
The vegetables are easy to source, but I have to buy dried sushi seaweed and ‘rehydrate’ it by pouring boiling water on top — which leaves my kitchen smelling like a fisherman’s welly. This also calls for ‘fleur de sel’ (no, me neither) so regular sea salt will have to do.
METHOD: First, I have to chop the cauliflower into thick slices using a round cookie cutter. The ‘steaks’ go in the oven for 20 minutes, drizzled with olive oil and salt.
Using Claire’s recipes published on the website, rue89bordeaux.com, SARAH RAINEY attempts to rustle up a three-course meal to find out just how tasty vegan food can be
Next it’s on to the broth, which Claire makes from scratch using carrots, celery, leeks and onion. I unashamedly open a Knorr stock pot, to which I add three sticks of crushed lemongrass and a pinch of ‘super expensive’ saffron, and simmer for half an hour.
The final stage is making the seaweed tartare. I chop the seaweed into pieces, before mixing it with capers, pickles and shallots. To this, I add cider vinegar, olive oil and yet more salt.
PLATING UP: I’m nervous: Claire’s dish resembles an intricate sculpture, while my cauliflower steaks look limp and grey.
I start by setting a ‘steak’ in the centre of the plate and spooning over some pungent seaweed tartare. I top with spinach leaves and artichoke slices. This stage requires tweezers and serious dexterity; it’s all very delicate and threatens to topple over. Finally, with a Masterchef-style flourish, I pour my saffron-infused broth on top.
TASTE TEST: The steak — though far from a ribeye — is unexpectedly delicious with charred edges and a buttery, melt-in-the-mouth middle. The broth has a nice kick from the lemongrass, and the leaves on top add freshness and crunch.
But the seaweed is overpowering, reminding me more of a murky British seaside than azure French shores. Overall, it’s an intriguing starter which makes me curious about what’s coming next.
MAIN: MUSHROOM ‘SCALLOPS’ WITH CHARCOAL PUREE & FENNEL SAUCE
Mushroom scallops with charcoal puree and fennel sauce
INGREDIENTS: I’m not ashamed to admit I have to Google most of these. The dish starts with four large ‘Eryngii’ mushrooms (also known as King Oyster; the giant tubular ones) cooked in a marinade of soy sauce, sugar, mirin (a Japanese rice wine) and ginger.
These are served with potato, mixed with edible charcoal and argan oil, and a sauce made from fennel, olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and herbs. To garnish, Claire uses leek ash (charred remains of burnt leeks), Enoki mushrooms (tiny spindly ones), radish and nasturtium flowers.
Of course, most of these aren’t available in my supermarket but I manage to cobble together most of it from specialist delis, the internet (and my neighbour’s garden).
METHOD: The recipe starts by slicing the mushrooms into scallop-sized pieces and cooking in a ridged pan. I’m already impressed; they look like real scallops, and smell delicious.
Next, I make a teriyaki sauce by reducing the soy sauce, sugar, mirin and ginger to a syrup in a pan. I brush this on the ‘scallops’ using a paintbrush and glaze them in a hot oven for three minutes.
Charcoal powder is added to mashed potatoes, turning them a deep, unappetising black. It looks like something from a horror film, or a recipe gone badly wrong. Claire also adds eight tablespoons of argan oil — something I’ve only used on my hair, so I drizzle in rapeseed oil instead. Finally, I chop the fennel with the herbs and add oil and vinegar for the sauce.
Sarah Rainey's attempt at recreating the mushroom scallops with charcoal puree and fennel sauce from ONA's menu
PLATING UP: I start by arranging dollops of blackened mash on the plate and tweeze on my ‘scallops’.
I then drizzle the sauce around the edges and artfully scatter on some tiny mushrooms, herbs and edible flowers. The only other instruction is ‘decorate as you wish’. I find some beansprouts, carrots and courgette in the fridge. In place of the leek ash (because who has the time or the inclination?), I grind on some black pepper.
TASTE TEST: If you can get past the overarching taste of burnt potato, then this dish is utterly delicious.
The ‘scallops’ could fool even an ardent fish-lover; they’re soft with a chewy centre and a slight crunch from the teriyaki glaze. The sauce is zingy and goes really well with the raw vegetables on top.
If I could be bothered to make this again, I’d omit the charcoal; no one needs black potato.
Le VERDICT . . .
Claire’s food is clever — and, had I even a modicum of her Michelin-starred skill (and access to the weird and wonderful ingredients she favours), I’m sure these dishes would taste a lot better.
But as a lifelong carnivore, I can’t help but feel something’s missing. If I went to a Michelin-starred restaurant and was served cauliflower, mushrooms and dairy-free mousse, I’d be disappointed — and off in search of the nearest plate of steak frites on my way home.
Veganism may be taking off in France, but it’s got a long way to go before it takes over my kitchen.
DESSERT: COCOA LEAF WITH CHOCOLATE and VIOLET MOUSSE AND LYCHEE
INGREDIENTS: This dish requires soy milk, margarine, flour, cocoa powder, cornflour, sugar and salt to make a thin ‘lace’ crepe.
There’s also a chocolate mousse (made from soy cream, icing sugar, cocoa and coconut oil), infused with violet extract, and fresh lychees.
I find the violet extract on Amazon, but fail on the fresh lychees, so I swap in some tinned pears and hope for the best.
METHOD: First you have to make an ultra-thin crepe, which has to bake until it’s brittle and thin enough to crack into shards. This is fiddly: too thick and it won’t shatter, too thin and it’ll never come off the baking sheet.
While it cooks, I make the mousse. The violet extract smells like perfume and Claire is vague on quantities, so I opt for a few drops before my mousse tastes like a bouquet. To set the mousse, I put it in the fridge for 90 minutes until it’s solid enough to scoop.
PLATING UP: I insert spoonfuls of mousse and pieces of pear between the shards of crepe. To replicate the artfully arranged crumbs on Claire’s plate, I crumble over some Oreo cookies.
TASTE TEST: Disappointingly bland. I am impressed by Claire’s ability to turn dishes that are traditionally made with dairy products (such as crepes and mousse) vegan, without compromising texture or appearance, but unfortunately the flavours here are a bit of a let-down.
Cocoa leaf with chocolate and violet mousse and lychee