The assumption that if you travel to France, your eating experiences will blow your mind, is not an uncommon one. This is, after all, a country that for a long time has been a powerhouse of not only cuisine, but regional products and specialties. French food gained a reputation for a reason.
Nowadays, however? French food isn't faring so well. In response to the fact that a recent study showed that 85 percent of the country's 150,000 restaurants served vacuum-packed and frozen food, the government came in to ensure that it didn't lose it's culinary heritage.
This summer a regulation went into effect that requires restaurants to explicitly state whether or not their food is "fait maison," made in house.
It's a little logo that looks like a house, it's supposed to tell you whether or not the food the restaurant is preparing is actually homemade or whether they are dumping a can of cassoulet in a bowl and heating it in the microwave. While at the outset it sounds commendable, critics have been quick to rip it apart. As Mark Bittman wrote, "... the devil is in the details, and the law has several exemptions — including frozen food. Thus, farm-raised, antibiotic-laced, slave-labor-produced and frozen-and-thawed shrimp from Thailand can be legitimately logo-ized, as long as they’re cooked in-house, as can frozen vegetables from anywhere in the world — again, as long as they’re cooked in the restaurant that’s serving them."
Have the French lost interest in their food? Fast food now accounts for more than half of all restaurant sales in France and enter any French supermarket and you are inundated with the same amount of hyper-processed food products just like any other Western country in the world. Certainly there's still a respect of food tradition, but when a Burger King opens up and people line up for hours to get a Whopper, you have to wonder what the future of food will look like.
Lizzie Porter of the Telegraph writes that what's of more concern than whether or not someone is serving frozen vegetables is France's "haughty belief that its classics are better than everyone else’s is the bigger concern."
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It's true. Resting on its culinary laurels has mean that despite a good number of amazing Michelin chefs, Paris isn't the only food capital in the world anymore, and it's certainly not the front runner for food innovation. As Porter writes, "Instead of stifling restaurant owners with another layer of bureaucracy with which they may comply (inspections on restaurants claiming to offer food “fait maison” are to come into force next year), the French government would be better to foster an environment in which diversity and ingenuity in cooking are encouraged. And by ingenuity, I do not mean another pretentious foam and girolle display, presented on a oddly-shaped glass plate, but simply the adoption of a wider range of ingredients and cooking styles."
French food isn't boring or bad, but the way it's being made now is. However you feel about the quality of French food, there's no denying that it's time for change. Because the world of agribusiness, industrialized food products and fast food corporations will slowly take over a country that was once the home of the cozy, corner bistro, where you could get a decent homemade meal, with fresh, local ingredients for a decent price. And that's the real loss.
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Image: Marielle den Hoedt