Café Culture, or Coffee Culture?

French Coffee Café

Typical French “Café/Express” / Photo by Flickr user H4 g2

French coffee drinkers are increasingly turning away from the traditional French café in favor of more specialized, artisanal coffee, or “fast food” industrialized coffee (Starbucks). The poor quality of French coffee is frequently criticized; many claim that it is merely an overly-bitter afterthought served with excessive sugar cubes in an attempt to render it drinkable. In a response to this criticism, artisan and specialized coffee shops and even local roasters have begun to crop up throughout Paris, along with the industrial giant, Starbucks. For now I’m going to ignore the issues surrounding Starbucks, and focus on the other end of the spectrum: craft coffee in France.

Those who lament the loss of French “café culture” assume that this is a static and historically constant facet of French identity. But coffee is not indigenous to France; its cultivation and distribution is an artifact of colonization and extraction. The so-called café culture that emerged was a form of Continue reading

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Food Trucks in France: Faster Food?

Le Camion Qui Fume Burger Fast Food

Burger from Le Camion Qui Fume. Photo by Kerry L, Flickr.

Food trucks are by no means new to France. But after three years of consistently rising popularity, it’s near-conclusive that this American culinary concept is here to stay.

In 2011, Kristin Frederick brought the first food truck to Paris, “Le Camion Qui Fume.” A California native and graduate of French culinary school, Frederick embodied the original creed of American food trucks while paying homage to her classical training; Le Camion Qui Fume produced high quality, professionally prepared food at low costs with a high convenience factor. The stereotypical American fast food item, the hamburger, was served to French culinary standards using quality local ingredients and impeccable cooking techniques, with all the attractive qualities of American fast food (speed, mobility, and affordability.) Since the astounding success of Le Camion Qui Fume (lauded by influential celebrity food critics/chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and David Lebovitz) more than 100 food trucks serving foods from various cultures and culinary disciplines have hit the streets of France, and a street food festival featuring food trucks premiered in Paris just last weekend. The question that rises to the surface in light of this new culinary trend is similar to the concerns that surround fast food in France. What does the food truck mean for French culture, and how will it alter the traditional French dining experience?  Continue reading

The State of Fromage

Traditional French Cheese Board

Traditional French Cheese Board

French cheeses are going extinct.

In a literal sense, this dramatic statement holds some truth – raw-milk “traditional” cheese varieties, characterized by specific sets of bacteria, are dying out due to regulatory mechanisms, consumer disinterest, and a shifting agricultural model. French culinary authorities hold unpasteurized or raw milk-based cheese in high regard, even as a defining tenet of French national identity. But realistically, traditional unpasteurized French cheese may not survive in an increasingly standardized and industrialized global dairy industry.

In 1998, 18% of French cheese production was unpasteurized. In 2010, only 7% remained unpasteurized. So what happened in those sixteen years? Apparently, a lot: Continue reading

Restaurant Wars: France vs. the World

Croque Madame, Le Nemrod, Paris - French Dining

Croque Madame – Le Nemrod, Paris

France is in the midst of a modern-day culinary revolution.

From 1960 to 2008, 160,000 French cafés went out of business. McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are growing in popularity, while traditional restaurants are falling amidst claims of poor quality and staggering prices. So what’s happening to the French restaurant as we knew it, and what does its future look like?

The restaurant as a modern institution can be traced back to post-revolutionary France. Cooks and guildsmen formerly employed by the French monarchy found themselves in need of a new occupation. They began cultivating a dining experience that served the civilian population with the same finery and sophistication previously exclusive to aristocrats, an appropriate response to the revolutionary creed of the time. Restaurant dining became a statement of democratic freedom from an unjust monarchy, a demonstration of equality and fallen feudal barriers. From these deeply political beginnings, it is not surprising that the restaurant, in France and around the world, has persevered as an institution that seeks to convey a certain image – one of prestige, luxury, and social collaboration. However, a new kind of restaurant has developed in the modern world: “fast food” provides us with consistent, cheap food served quickly and oftentimes taken to go.

This shift in the nature of restaurants has affected French dining culture deeply. Once considered the gold standard of culinary experiences, French restaurants are now Continue reading