French consumption of luxury foods
Posted 12 February 2003 - 04:56 PM
Spending consecutive weeks in a small French town has offered me an opportunity to observe the locals' food buying habits.
These come to the fore at Christmas and New Years', when it seems obligatory for everyone to consume large amounts of luxury foods: oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, truffles, etc. Our butcher works overtime and sacrifices his usual closing days and hours; the fishmonger sets up a large tent outside his shop where people can collect the plateaux de fruits de mer that must be reserved in advance. At Christmas midnight mass, the parish priest fulminates against viewing the holiday in terms of food, but after the service he announces that he, personally, has nothing against champagne and fine foods (especially the champagne) and invites the congregation to the traditional "thirteen desserts", presented by the village's office de fêtes (festivities department) in the plaza outside the church.
But, from discussions in the queues at butcher and fishmonger, I am struck that this sort of consumption is a somewhat unusual event, even in Mougins, a very "foodie" town. "I'm trying the goose foie gras this year", says one woman to the butcher; "last year we had the duck". She tells me, while waiting, that she only buys foie gras for Christmas and New Year's and for important birthdays and anniversaries.
My 12 year old son returned from a week's ski holiday with a French family whom we originally met through a school exchange. They are comfortably middle class, though the cost of raising three children in Paris means that they watch their pennies. But because they are deeply religious Catholics, they strictly observe the fasts of Lent and Advent, so that over several visits our son has been served numerous vegetarian meals – cabbage pie, green beans ("Is that what you had for dinner, green beans?" we asked. "Yes", he said. "Green beans and some rice and a salad. And then a bit of cheese".). Their 12 year old, visiting us, has been astonished that we eat meat almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and serve desserts with many meals.
Reading these boards it would be easy to conclude that the French lurch from one 3-star meal to another, starting each meal with vintage Bollinger and working their way through flights of amuse guèles, washing down huge plates of truffled foie gras with Château Cheval Blanc, then finishing each meal with cheese, pre-dessert, dessert and mignardises. Then the magic of the French paradox goes to work and this rich eating has no effect on waistlines or health.
Reading Richard Olney's biography Reflexions (Brick Tower Press, 2000) --click here to order -- would convey a similar impression. Olney seemed to begin every meal with an apéritif and drink several beautiful wines even with the simplest menu.
For the French that I have met, the reality is different. They do consume luxury foods at a higher rate than many countries, but foie gras, caviar and truffles are not a daily affair. These things are special, in part because they are eaten relatively rarely.
It would be interesting to hear from other members with experience of France, or data on consumption of luxury foods. Is the impression I have painted incorrect or realistic?
Some starting pointers for further research: the French health site 'Doctissimo' (click here) proclaims foie gras "a dish of choice…and an exception", i.e. something to be enjoyed but not eaten frequently. It indicates that annual consumption of foie gras has doubled in the past 10 years, and is now 16000 metric tonnes per year. Given that the population of France is 61.1 m, this comes to roughly 260g per person per year, which seems like an astonishing amount…according to Doctissimo, this is roughly 6 average servings per adult and child, every year. The market research company SECODIP (click here) notes that the period from 9 September to 27 January accounts for 80% of annual consumption.
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le goï¿½t de ce qu'elles sont."
Posted 14 February 2003 - 02:43 AM
It has always been a mystery to me. WHO IS EATING ALL THAT FOOD?? Not the townswomen by the look of it. In general French women are a slender bunch. I can only conclude that in every town and village there are a dedicated group of men who commit their days to scoffing their way through mountains of quiches and pates and rillettes and rillons and langue de boeuf sauce piquante and tartes au framboise an all the other goodies which fill the windows and counters of these places.
And what happens to the stuff that's left over? Is there an arrangement whereby its delivered to the local hospital, or old folks home or something? Or is it just chucked out?
These are only slightly frivolous questions. I'd really like to know.
Posted 15 February 2003 - 11:31 AM
My original post was not meant to say that the French don't eat well -- of course they do. Sunday, especially, seems to be a day of feasting, and the queues at butcher, baker and greengrocer are long. But even those feasts don't seem to involve truffles, foie gras, caviar except at special times of the year.
Like Tony, I have wondered what happens to all the leftovers. A few thoughts.
1) It really isn't true that "every two bit horse town" has all those shops. Thanks to the growth of supermarkets, many small towns no longer have a butcher of their own. Many butchers have combined with traiteur/charcutiers.
2) A certain amount of recycling goes on: meats into rillettes, daubes into ravioli fillings, etc.
3) Bakers, in particular, are happy to suffer stockouts, especially on bread. I rarely see more than a loaf or two of bread left at the end of a day. Customers, as a result, tend to stock up and often have stale bread, which turns into crumbs, fed to animals or tossed out.
4) Having said all that, my impression is that the operation of an artisanal boucherie/charcuterie is arduous and largely unprofitable work. The owner of the best one in our town, a brilliant and obsessive perfectionist in his craft, is not optimistic that he will find someone to take over the shop when he retires. I don't think it's much of a moneyspinner for him, even though the prices are high by comparison to the local supermarket. I would guess that the economics of an artisanal baker, fishmonger, greengrocer are similar.
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le goï¿½t de ce qu'elles sont."
Posted 15 February 2003 - 07:42 PM
The answer to "1)" would involve an interesting social commentary on the times we live in. From my perspective it would seem that many people can no longer judge the excellent from the good or the mediocre from the poor. So, not being able to discern one cut of meat from another, or whether a piece of fish is in good shape or not, they will settle for the mediocre of the supermarket - where all is "good". And so, people not having any knowledge or judgement of their own will opt for the "safeness and convenience" of the supermarket.
1) It really isn't true that "every two bit horse town" has all those shops. Thanks to the growth of supermarkets, many small towns no longer have a butcher of their own.
4) Having said all that, my impression is that the operation of an artisanal boucherie/charcuterie is arduous and largely unprofitable work. The owner of the best one in our town, an brilliant and obsessive perfectionist in his craft, is not optimistic that he will find someone to take over the shop when he retires. I don't think it's much of a moneyspinner for him, even though the prices are high by comparison to the local supermarket. I would guess that the economics of an artisanal baker, fishmonger, greengrocer are similar.
So far as "4)", in my business I am not involved in food but I can closely relate to being, "a brilliant and obsessive perfectionist in his craft, [that] is not optimistic that he will find someone to take over the shop when he retires."
It's a sad fact of the times that this is so. Like the people you describe, when I am gone, there will be also gone what I have tried to keep alive from those who came before me and managed to teach me a little something - as well as all that I've been able to learn on my own. People will look at my tools and wonder how they were used.
It's just the way things are now. There's probably not much that can be done about it - for those of us who care.
On a lighter note - I was in a local (good) supermarket last fall and was in the produce section looking at the various (also good) offerings. I noticed an older couple, perhaps in their late sixties, he with white hair and ponytail, and she with grey hair and bra-less (California hippies?) They were checking out the green beans. He picked one up, bent it between his fingers, and it snapped. He looked at her, she nodded her assent, and they put some in a bag to buy. I learned something about checking out green beans that day.