Frogs’s Legs, a French Identity Crisis

Traditional French preparation of frogs' legs, served at Allard in Paris

Traditional French preparation of frogs’ legs, served at Allard in Paris

What is the absolute most French food you can think of?

…Chances are, frogs’ legs come to mind. In a sense, you would be right – of 160 million frogs reportedly consumed in Europe each year, exactly half of those are eaten in France. The French are undoubtedly the biggest fan of the tiny amphibian…so much so that they have driven their own frog populations to near extinction, and were forced to place a ban on frog hunting in 1980. In order to maintain high levels of frog leg consumption, France now must import its amphibians from Asian countries with thriving frog populations, namely Indonesia, the #1 exporter of frogs’ legs globally. So it seems that suddenly French frog legs’ are no longer French, Continue reading

Wild Mushroom Hunting, a French Pastime

Clockwise from the bunch that looks black: trompettes, girolles, cepe, pied de mouton, chanterelles, and pleurotes

A variety of wild mushrooms, purchased in Paris

Yet another one of France’s most sacred culinary traditions is wild mushroom picking. In fact, mushroom picking in France is a highly regulated and competitive endeavor, guided by laws and/or commonly accepted social norms.

Some mushroom-related laws:

  • Mushrooms belong to the owner of the land on which they grow (Article 547, French Civil Code)
  • If such land is public, a law passed in 1989 gives the prefecture power to regulate wild mushroom picking. This may include a per-person limit, certain days when picking is allowed, or a complete ban on mushroom picking due to environmental factors.
  • Mushrooms must meet specific size requirements to be picked, based on variety
  • The only tool allowed in mushroom picking is a knife, which must be used to cut the mushroom off from its roots in order to preserve them for growing future mushroom generations
  • Mushrooms collected must be carried in a wicker basket to allow spores to fall through and grow new mushrooms

Continue reading

The Truffle Tragedy

French Périgord truffles prepared on top of toasted bread slices

Traditional gastronomic presentation of French Périgord truffles

Another French product is in jeopardy – and this time, Americanization is not to blame. French truffles are in serious danger of being out-competed by cheap Chinese versions in an apparent “black market” truffle trade.

French truffles are among the most expensive foods in the world by weight. Going for around €500 per kilogram, black French truffles from the Périgord region in the Southwest, are considered one of the most luxurious symbols of high French cuisine and gastronomic heritage. Along with geographically benevolent vineyard soil, French truffles are considered one of France’s most prized natural culinary possessions. As such, they command an extremely high price. The financial benefits are attractive not only to French truffle growers, but to imitators, specifically those Continue reading

The Market Debate, Part 4: The Future of French Food

online shopping

A new factor in the food distribution game is one of the main driving forces of globalization as a whole: the Internet. A third method of food distribution is becoming increasingly (albeit slowly) more feasible: online ordering for pick up or even delivery. Supermarket chains like Carrefour and Monoprix are offering online ordering and delivery services, and independent companies providing this service have popped up as well (such as Houra, which also delivers other products – clothes and small furniture – that a supermarket might carry). Could the “cybermarché” be the next step in food distribution, and if so, what will this mean for traditional food networks?

Over the last two weeks I have taken an in-depth look Continue reading

The Market Debate, Part 3: Inside a Local French Market

french food market paris vegetables

The Saxe-Breteuil market in Paris

The traditional French market, or “marché,” is a historical fixture in French culture and daily life.

A society dedicated to food quality and tradition, the local market is one way the French connect and interact with their nationality; it is an identity performance, a way of sustaining a relationship with traditional foods, the land they came from, and the people who grew them, all of which are specifically French.

One of the earliest examples of a traditional French market was Les Halles, created in 1110. Over the centuries the market grew and transformed to reflect the contemporary market format as a space for buying and selling local foods and products. Today, the food market that once bustled at Les Halles has been relocated in favor of a large commercial shopping center, perhaps an accurate representation of the reorganization of French consumer culture. But despite the meteoric success of supermarkets and fast food, Continue reading

The Market Debate, Part 2: Inside a French Supermarket

carrefour shopping carts grocery store

Where do you buy your food? If you live in France, there’s a good chance the answer is “Carrefour.”

Carrefour is the leading supermarket chain in France. Opened in 1958 by Marcel Fournier, Denis Defforey and Jacques Defforey, it has expanded into a multinational corporation with a revenue of €76.127 billion in 2012 (Carrefour Annual Report). In it’s first 20 years of existence Carrefour opened more than 2,000 stores, and today has locations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. It is the fourth largest retail operator in the world behind Wal-Mart, Tesco, and Costco (Potter 2011). Directly influenced by the American retail giant, Carrefour replicated the American superstore model as well as its success. However in recent years Carrefour’s profits have remained stagnant due to a combination of increased competition, the global recession, and a growing distrust of industrial food.

The following video depicts a typical walk through one of Carrefour’s “hypermarkets”. Continue reading

The Market Debate, Part 1: Super, or Local?

carrots

Everyone has to eat.

When it comes to buying food, two prominent choices emerge: the supermarket, and the local market or “farmer’s market.” Both are associated with different modes of production, distribution, and cultural values; both have their own benefits and drawbacks. Historically, the local market is a prominent feature of French social life. With the advent of a market economy, it began as a place of local commerce and the driving force of the local economy; as France grew into its prestigious culinary identity the market became a place for small-scale artisanal producers to showcase their high-quality goods in a reaffirmation of regional identity. While markets still exist in France, and are an important feature of local communities, Continue reading

The Ortolan, France’s Most Controversial Songbird

songbird ortolan bunting french delicacy

The tiny (edible) songbird, Ortolan Bunting

At first glance, the ortolan seems like a common songbird or even a finch. But to members of the French culinary elite, this tiny creature is a delicacy, even a gastronomic “rite of passage.”

Historically, the ortolan is captured and fattened through force-feeding, which sometimes (allegedly) included enclosing the animal in a dark box or even gouging its eyes out to engage instincts that cause it to overeat. The bird is then roasted and eaten whole, traditionally with a napkin over one’s head – either to seal in aromas, conceal the nasty process of spitting out bones, or hide from the “shame of God” at eating a songbird. The whole process may seem odd and even ridiculous to some, but in French gourmand circles the ortolan is considered a high culinary form. François Mitterand reportedly dined on ortolan for his last meal in 1996, and Anthony Bourdain describes it as a “life-altering” meal in his 2010 memoir “Medium Raw.” Recipes for ortolan appear in the 1961 edition of French cookbook Larousse Gastronomique, and the restaurant Chez Denis featured the delicacy on their $4000 menu in 1975. Clearly the ortolan is a traditional French symbol of culinary prestige, associated with wealth, status, and refinement. So what makes this tiny songbird so special? Like much else in France, Continue reading

Vegetarianism in France: Natural, or Non?

veg

Vegetarianism in France is on the rise. But is this a socially responsible, health-conscious attempt to preserve global resources and combat increasingly publicized poor animal treatment, or an economic decision influenced by diet marketing and economic strife?

Traditionally, French cuisine and its host of famous staple dishes (boeuf bourgignon, foie gras, and poulet rôti to name a few) is globally revered as the highest form of culinary art. It is also well understood to be a cuisine that consists of rich, fatty, buttery foods – with some form of animal protein as an indispensible staple. But things are changing in France. Vegetarianism is on the rise, and meat consumption is down – as much as 2% in 2013, a continuation of a downward trend experienced since at least 2011. Falling demand for meat (beef and veal specifically) in France is not due to the rise of vegetarianism, although Continue reading

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