I asked myself the question, one winter night in 2013, when I walked by a small joint in the old city center in Nancy. The oldest “brasserie” in town had just taken its trash out. Its contents, and the fraud they gave out, were neatly displayed on the pavement. I didn’t even have to bend over to familiarize myself with it. For example, I learnt that the renowned “ravioles de Royan” on the menu last year… are sold by the box (32 sheets) by a big food-processing brand specializing in professional markets – Métro, not to mention it, whose products are bought on the regular by 80% of restaurant owners.
A little further in the Grande rue, the owner of another restaurant unloads his van, as he does almost every morning: giant packs of vacuum-packed salad, buckets of Métro hummus… It is not even a secret.
In the past, when one went to the restaurant, it was simply to find what wasn’t available at home: good, fresh products, cooked with savoir-faire. Now, restaurant owners and private individuals both shop in supermarkets. It’s only a matter of quantity and of knowing which one of the two won’t feel like cooking a (good) meal.
The authorities’ response
In the past years, the authorities tried several times to tackle the problem, when the culinary reputation of the first tourist destination if the world is in jeopardy. A key measure in the 2014 Consumption Law, coming into force this 15th of July, is to compel restaurant owners to add a “home-made” mention on menus for all “dishes made entirely on the spot from raw products”. A soviet-looking logo – a pan with a roof-shaped lid – will now signal these to the consumer. From the Senators to the Secretary of State, the buck has been passed to many a politician and the law has all but failed to come into existence. The many contacts between some politicians and the food- and restaurant-industry lobby are noteworthy, especially when you’re aware that they provide 1 million jobs and achieve a turnover of 100 billions euros a year. These “dangerous liaisons” are responsible for the late enforcement of the law, which has been considerably gutted by numerous exceptions. Here is what the ministerial decree states, according to the Official Journal of July 13th, 2014:
“II. — A dish may be labeled as “home-made” if it contains the following items, as received by the restaurant owner:
“ — peeled, except for potatoes, skinned, cut, minced, chopped, cleaned, boned, shelled, carved, grinded or milled;
“ — smoked, salted;
“ — refrigerated, frozen, deep-frozen, vacuum-packed.”
Therefore, if you order a slab of Scandinavian farmed salmon, with French beans, hulled and vacuum-packed in Poland in January, it is still homemade. If potatoes are under stricter regulations, it is so that fast-food chains won’t boast the homemade quality of their food.
Another example. Later in the text and in the list of products that can be used in a homemade dish, you can find uncooked puff pastry. Therefore, a frozen raspberry tart bought from Thiriet and made in Serbia with industrial uncooked puff pastry is still homemade. But if the same tart is made from prepared piecrust, it won’t be given the precious label. Work that one out for yourself.
It was a well-meaning law, but it is obvious that it has considerable limits. I find it regrettable that, in a city as the one I live in, at the crossroads of major European roads and at the heart of a rich “terroir”, it is sometimes difficult to find restaurants, whatever the price range, that work with fresh products, with savoir-faire, for the love of the trade and respectfully toward the client. By the way, the best places in Nancy will appear in this blog.
The 8 p.m. France 2 news bulletin from July 14th featured an excellent summary of the situation in French (starting from the 13th minute and onward). Some employees of these large food-retailers where all restaurant owners go are so revolted by the constant stream of restaurant managers and even great chefs that they claim they don’t go to restaurants anymore, now that they know what they serve…
In favor of a better eating situation
Some don’t see the problem, as long as prices are OK and the taste of the food is acceptable good. It is the defense line of the restaurant owners, the main target here, who say that an industrially made dish can be of outstanding quality, sometimes even better than it had been made from scratch on the spot. A frozen product can also be very good, as it is known that this conservation technique preserves the nutritional quality of the food, especially fruits and vegetables. All this is true.
What bothers the client then? Maybe the slight feeling that they are getting ripped off, when the professionals of the field seem to get lazier and lazier. In the country of gastronomy, most customers’ objections are related to the quality of the food, but what is most upsetting is that they are paying for something they could heat up themselves in the microwave or easily make from already prepared ingredients.
If everything was homemade, would the prices really rise so much? Would the restaurant owners compensate for the cost of getting fresh products and cooking them? That is what they claim, pointing out that, among other things, it would imply hiring more people – in a branch where hands are scarce and hiring is difficult. Will homemade food put a strain on family budgets and bring down the most humble ones? Are we doomed to microwave gastronomy because of these contradictions?
One of the latest trends in French restaurant apparently disproves this. In the context of this long-lasting crisis, the single menu is back and offers a good way out of the problems mentioned above. Ideally it will make both the customer and the restaurant owner happy, as the former would be offered day-fresh products and the latter would be able to manage his stocks and his cooking staff, while calculating his costs to the penny.
France’s gastronomy has been listed as a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and it is not only because of the number of holders of Michelin-star, whose prices limit the social diversity of the clientele. It is also because of the “bistrots”, “brasseries” and other family-owned businesses that made it what it is and, today, it is up to them to live up to that heritage.
The customer has to take a part in this and his mission is to stop tasting passively and to make the effort of getting to know the products from his region and from elsewhere. It is important to pay attention to the weather again and to learn what each season has to give. Without the customer’s participation, we will still be offered mostly already cooked or frozen food, coming directly from the box to the plate, and we will be complicit in a “savoir-vivre” fraud.
The single menu is a proof of the fact that homemade food is no utopic idea, bred by the week minds of paranoid customers.
I’ll come back to the subject according to the latest news and my latest experience – stay tuned!