Escargot: Save the Snails?

Traditional French preparation of escargot. Paris, France.

Traditional French preparation of escargot. Paris, France.

Again, I’ll ask: what is the absolute most French food you can think of?

If it’s not frog’s legs, then it’s got to be escargot. Another dish that confuses and even disturbs many Americans, snails are considered a traditional component of gastronomic history in France. But it’s not just the French – archaeological evidence suggests that snails have been on the menu in Mediterranean regions since prehistoric times. Other cultures eat snails as well – Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and some Asian countries all include snails as a common (or at least socially acceptable) menu item. For whatever reason, though, snails have been Continue reading

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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 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

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

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