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Alex Robertson: Eat as the locals do

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Dietary restrictions can be difficult to keep to in far-flung corners of the world, writes Alex Robertson.

What should a polite vegetarian traveller do when faced with nothing but wild boar on the menu? Photo / Thinkstock
What should a polite vegetarian traveller do when faced with nothing but wild boar on the menu? Photo / Thinkstock

I have a confession to make: I am a vegetarian.

To be more precise, an Ovo-lacto-pescatarian.

That means I eat dairy products, eggs and occasionally fish and seafood.

Bully for you, you might say, what's that got to do with travel?

Bear with me.

One of the joys of travelling is sampling the many food and drink experiences offered from myriad cultures around the globe.

The food of some countries is an integral part of the journey: you can't visit Italy without eating pasta; likewise a trip to Germany or England would be nothing without beer.

For travellers with special dietary requirements, whether voluntary, through religious conviction or medical conditions, this can limit the culinary and cultural experience.

Thankfully, most airlines these days offer a plate for every taste, conviction and condition.

I love travelling long-haul with Emirates as I can be Jainian for one leg, Hindu vegetarian the next, Western vegetarian for another and raw vegan if I'm feeling really hard core.

Kosher, Halal, gluten-free, diabetic, and low-calorie are some of the other choices.

I have yet to try it, but I am looking forward to the Champagne special meal!

Even at home: I can battle with family members over chicken stock in soup and bacon bits in quiche, and that's with people of the same culture and language; imagine how difficult it is trying to explain in sign language to the Mandarin-speaking host that I would like this one (pointing to glossy picture on the menu) but does it contain any meat products? - very tricky to mime.

India and the Middle East are a little easier as beans and pulses make up a large and especially delicious proportion of their natural diet.

Felafel, hummus and curries feature in my normal everyday food choices anyway.

Southern Europe is a doddle for vegetarians, with an abundance of salads, seafood and vegetarian dishes all routinely making up a large part of the local fare.

Northern Europe is a little more tricky as meat is a staple in most of these countries, but the abundance of post-60s alternative types (especially in the big cities) has meant the proliferation of vego cafes and interesting choices in the more upmarket restaurants.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me is travelling in France.

I speak a reasonable amount of the language and have an okay grasp of French cuisine but still am confronted with blank stares and down-the nose looks of contempt when I ask for a dish "sans viandes, s'il vous plait."

Then again, it sometimes pays to go with the flow.

On one occasion visiting friends in Nice I found myself in a "Petit Auberge" in Les Alps Maritimes.

High up in the mountains, the lodge was a picturesque cross between a Cote d'Azur villa and Swiss chalet. There were no menus, lunch was what was made in the kitchen that day.

We sat down and drank some wine and before a large platter of home-made ravioli arrived.

"What's in this?" I enquired.

"Wild boar caught yesterday."

Hold on, I thought, I can't eat this ... But, then I remembered what Bob Geldof wrote when he visited an Ethiopian village during his Live Aid efforts to relieve starvation and famine across the Horn of Africa.

Despite the lack of food, the village had killed and prepared a calf in his honour.

Faced with the moral dilemma, Geldof realised that to refuse the meal would be to offend the locals and risk his efforts to help with their desperate situation.

While my circumstance was not quite of the same gravity, I realised that to refuse to eat the food in front of me would be to offend not just the restaurateur, but my friends too.

Wild pigeon was the second course, followed by a stew of more of the boar. Pear tatin rounded it all off.

The experience was an insight into how people in the Alps have lived and eaten for hundreds of years, a real authentic taste from a unique part of the world.

And - I have another confession to make - it was delicious.

- NZ Herald

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