France is the most popular tourist destination in the world -- attracting a whopping 78.95 million foreign visitors in 2010 alone even in the middle of a world economic crisis. Her gorgeous countryside, her museums and châteaux, a rich cultural heritage and history; from Aix-en-Provence to the wild, rugged coast of Brittany, from the ski mecca of the Alps to the Basque Coast to the Loire River, not to forget Paris, the City of Lights and Romance, visitors and locals alike stream from one end of the country to the other to discover this magnificent landscape and enjoy her treasures.
Yet, maybe even more than all of these attractions, the art and the architecture, the sports and the countryside, people flock to France for the food. One of the gastronomic capitals of the world, a country whose cuisine UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, recently declared as part of the "intangible cultural heritage of humanity", French food has a reputation that keeps people coming back for more. From the country's famed three-star restaurants to her humble corner bistro serving up comforting plates of boeuf bourguignon or classic steak au poivre with frîtes, the world has come to look on French food as one of the best in the world. And whether local or visitor, we expect only the best on our plates and honesty on our menus when we sit down at any restaurant table in France, don't we?
Anyone who has paid attention to the news here in France during the past year has seen the articles and the investigative features on television exposing the shocking practice of restaurants all over the country of buying -- and serving -- industrial ready-made, vacuum-packed or canned dishes or products bought from the large wholesale restaurant supply warehouses. As one chef friend described it to me after having spotted another restaurant owner wheeling a huge trolley piled with cans of sauces and boxes of prepackaged and prepared meals through the parking lot of Métro supply store: "His kitchen staff consists of a chef and a pair of scissors (and, needless to say, a microwave oven)." No, this may not be the normal practice of all restaurants in France, but it is apparently becoming more and more common. The news media shocked an entire country by sending journalists to dig through restaurant trash bins and display on national television the boxes and bags in which had nestled the dishes that the menu declared to be homemade. So how does France handle this potential national embarrassment, this "dirty little secret"? By legislation, of course!
2011 saw the French government pounce on what they consider unhealthy or dishonest practices in restaurants or collectivities. Yes, there are many European directives dealing with food safety (food additives, supplements, flavorings, production, labeling), yet when it comes to what is being served individually in both restaurants and collectivities it may all be safe to eat but are we, the client getting what we expect? Are you always aware when you are eating something industrial if you have been convinced that it has been prepared fresh to order? Some food-related laws, amendments or decrees have been passed this year aimed at transparency and health in the best interest of the consumer. As a simple consumer myself as well as an occasional restaurant client, many of these touch me directly and so I listen to the discourse, dig around and simply try and stay informed as well as any citizen with an internet connection, a television and the newspapers can be. Decree n° 2011-1227 was the one you may have heard of as it received quite a bit of flack in the American press. And I have a hard time understanding why.
Décret 2011-1227 was aimed at the nutritional quality of the meals served in school cafeterias and was passed in September. Many in the American press made a big deal of the newly strict rules over what was henceforth to be served to our children for lunch, focusing more on what was to be banned than the facts of the dietary rules and guidelines as a whole. As a mother whose two sons went through the French public school system and whose response to my often-posed question of "What did you have for lunch?" was met with "Pizza-frîtes (French fries)" I was thrilled to see the government stepping in and imposing stricter dietary guidelines, forcing cafeterias to serve healthier food. Ketchup banned? Not likely; rather served in appropriate portions and only alongside certain foods once a week rather than being left on a table free for self-service all week (the same goes for all condiments as well as salt). More choices of a main course; more dairy products; fried foods not to be served more than once a week; fat and sugary products also to be limited; fresh vegetable or fresh fruits and cooked vegetables will be included in half of the meals; and age-appropriate portions will be served to each class. This coming on the heels of the removal of all vending machines selling soda and junk food in schools. Health, education... and preserving French culinary culture? Some argue for the third, but I'm not so sure. With childhood obesity on the rise in France, the government sees that it is to the benefit of not only our children but the population as a whole to make sure kids are eating well-balanced, healthy meals for lunch. And this mother, for one, is very pleased.
But another law passed with less attention and exposure than the "Ketchup Ban" decree yet one that affects more of us, and one that you as a visitor to France should be aware of: in early October, the government voted in the Siré Amendment aimed at menu transparency for all restaurants. Following on the footsteps of the law requiring restaurants to indicate when a dish is prepared with frozen fish and seafood instead of fresh by placing an asterisk next to the dish name on the menu, this latest decree goes one step further and is an attempt to inform the client and consumer as to the source of the dish they are ordering, whether frozen, canned or fresh as well as where it was frozen if it was, whether industrially or in the restaurant's own kitchen. Now, whether something served you in a diningroom is industrial or made fresh in the kitchen while you wait is certainly no guarantee of either the quality of the dish or how it tastes, it does give the consumer knowledge and choice.
I've read that up to 80 percent of restaurants in France use some kind of industrially produced, frozen or freeze-dried products either alone (the entire dish itself) or to elaborate fresh products (such as a vacuum-packed, pre-made sauce over fresh fish). Even Roland Héguy, the President of the Union of Hotel and Restaurant Workers, declared that of 120,000 restaurants in the country, a mere 20,000 cook strictly with fresh products. In 2007, the government created the label "maître restaurateur" awarded only to those professionals who never serve prepackaged, industrially prepared food and the food they serve in their establishment is made from a minimum 60 percent fresh ingredients; among 80,000 establishments less than 2,000 have demanded and less than 1,000 have been awarded the title. Although there has been a driving movement among chefs to push more to turn back to using only fresh products in their kitchens, many restaurant owners claim that it is simply not economically feasible and could hurt their business. Others seem to think that all the labeling risks turning their menus into dictionaries, scaring away the clients.
My son recently invited me out to dinner at a new bistro he had recently discovered and fallen in love with. As my Duck Parmentier was placed before me, I did realize that the selection of dishes on the menu were typically products easily found in the frozen foods section of any supermarket in the same form and appearance, the same list on menus in so many bistros across the country and I was sure that the Parmentier on my plate was industrially prepared. I suspected that a tiny spot like this was more likely to have a pair of scissors and a microwave than a kitchen staff, but who was I to complain. It was a lovely evening with my son. But, yes, as a client and consumer and someone who loves to eat out, I do want to know that my food is being prepared with fresh ingredients. And I do feel that we have the right to know rather than being bamboozled. Now, I am only interested to know if and when we will actually start seeing the labeling on restaurant menus.
And next up? On December 28, the National Assembly passed the "soda tax", an increased tax (up to 25 percent on "fruit" drinks and 35 percent on sodas, leading to an increase of about 2 cents per can) on sugary as well as "light" drinks and sodas, which may generate upwards of 280 million euros which should go towards the country's escalating healthcare costs as well as financing healthcare for agricultural workers. Oh, and don't forget the government's continuing battle against obesity.
What do you think?
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.