First, a snippet from this morning's UK Daily Telegraph newspaper.
« Experts from the UN cultural organisation, UNESCO, gathered this week in the Kenyan capital, said France’s multi-course gastronomic meal, with its rites and its presentation, fulfilled the conditions for featuring on the list.
The “world intangible heritage” list, which until now numbered 178 cultural practices – including the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, was drawn up under a 2003 convention, now ratified by 132 countries. »
The Lord’s Prayer is ecumenical, so both Catholics and Protestants alike can implore the good Lord to give them their daily bread. In Britain you might get you white sliced loaf from the supermarket, in France we head to the boulangerie for our daily baguette – what the British might call a French stick.
It’s a well-worn cliché, the Beret coiffed Frenchman on a bicycle, pedalling home with his baguette strapped to his carrier or protruding from a saddlebag. Well, we might not cycle to the baker’s anymore, but you can guarantee that most French workers will pop into their boulangerie on the way home from work for their fresh daily bread.
This morning it was down to me to do the bread run. As I handed over a fistful of coins for my baguette, the baker (Boulanger) informed me that it was National Doughnut Day – yes, the French have doughnuts (or Donuts) – they call them Beignets (benyay), and they fill them with Jam, apple purée or Nutella chocolate spread. American readers, rest assured, the French are also adepts of those doughnuts with a hole in the middle.
On the strength that it was National Doughnut day, the baker managed to flog me a few doughnuts – on arriving home though, some quick research on the Internet revealed that National Doughnut Day 2013 is officially on June 7th. So let’s call this one French National Doughnut Day, and just remember that the French don’t like to do anything like anyone else – such an individualistic stance for a nation that includes the word « Fraternité » in its republican triptych.
Anyway, my baker is coining in a few extra Euros with his Doughnut day, and I now have a bag of doughnuts to wolf down. This will do nothing for my ever-expanding waistline.
As a nation of course, the French are getting fatter. Now, I can’t make such a sweeping statement without a few stats. In 1965 (the year I was born) 3% of French kids were overweight. In 2000 that figure had risen to 13% and in 2012, 26% of French kids were overweight, though of course this does not mean that nearly a quarter of French kids are clinically or morbidly obese. Thy just eat too much and possibly not the right sort of stuff. Frankly though, are you going to get French kids nibbling on carrots, when they can snack out on cheap doughnuts (especially today)?
And you thought this was the country where everyone sat down to gourmet meals everyday. Sorry to disappoint you. Although traditional French gastronomy has just been declared as « World Intangible Heritage », in France we don’t spend all day sitting round having lunch. Even the fabled 2 hour long lunch break is a thing of the past. French workers spend an average of 38 minutes wolfing down their midday meal.
Do we have less time to eat or are we simply spending less time eating ? In 2012, the French actually spent more on fast food, snacks and sandwiches than they did on traditional sit down restaurant meals. The sales of sandwiches have outstripped the French national dish … Steak and chips. The averages spend per head for eating out was around 12 Euros. For that kind of money, you can get a take away pizza or a couple of Burger menus at McDonald’s.
Back at the steak and chips. Yes, in this gastronomic paradise, that is France, it is quite surprising to discover that the national dish is something as simple as steak and chips. The « steack frites » as the French call it, is the staple of many restaurant menus. At mid price restaurants, by the time you have a steak and chips, a desert, a couple of glasses of wine and a coffee, you have notched up a bill of around 25 Euros. This is used to be the average French spend per head, when eating out of an evening – as opposed to 12 Euros. Of course it takes time to sit in a restaurant and eat a full dinner – hence the popularity of fast food – cheaper and quicker.
Burger bars, Kebab shops, Food trucks and such like are all doing very nicely in France. In 2012, the fast food sector turned over 30 billion Euros as opposed to 34 billion for the traditional restaurant sector.
Times are hard for restaurant owners – especially those in mid-priced family restaurants. Sure mum and dad will lay out up to 12 Euros for the kids at a fast food joint, but they won’t do the same in a traditional restaurant. Besides, Kids don’t want to sit for hours and eat, they want to gobble down their burgers and get to the play area or get back on their games console.
At the top end of the French food chain, the owners of those many Michelin- starred establishments, are doing very well. La Tour d’Argent, Maxime’s, Fouquets (to name but a few) are making good money – these are the kind of places where you can lay out a few hundred Euros on a meal – the average 25 Euro spend in a mid range restaurant won’t even be enough to tip the waiter at a top notch restaurant.
Of course, things should be better.
A few years back, the Sarkozy government lowered the VAT rate for restaurateurs from 19.6% to around 6%. The idea was simple. Less VAT would mean cheaper meals for the punters. More punters eating more, but cheaper meals … it all seemed to make good economic sense. Moreover, the restaurant industry promised to create thousands of new jobs in the wake of the VAT reduction. Well it never happened. Though some restaurants did pass on the VAT decrease to the punters via lower meal prices, plenty of restaurants didn’t. It all had something to do with the rising cost of food eating up the margins. Whether or not it is cheaper to eat out than before, one thing is clear – French families just aren’t going to traditional restaurants as much as they used to. Perhaps the sector has only got itself to blame. Inability to adapt to new eating habits. Inadapted menus, the lack of family-friendly establishments or just too pricey.
I must admit, in my small town, I never really saw the effects of the VAT drop in local restaurants. I didn’t really expect prices to be slashed, but I did expect at least a couple of Euros to be knocked off the old price.
And so, to conclude these gastronomic ramblings – a few thoughts on horse meat.
I’m very partial to a bit of horse. It’s lean, tender, tasty, low cholesterol meat. When I arrived in France in the early nineties, there were three, horse butcher’s in my town. Now they have all closed down, It would seem that horse meat is a very generational thing. Our parents and grandparents thought nothing of eating the stuff - kids today though won’t eat it. The butcher at my local supermarket still sells horsemeat. I was almost inclined to buy some the other day. However I was more than a little cautious about the provenance of the meat. No, not Romania, but Uruguay.
Just a final thought on this National Doughnut Day
Which came first, the hole or the doughnut ? And is it rude to say of someone that they are like a hole without a doughnut ?