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

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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 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

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