Monday, November 30, 2009

November 2008: Fast Food Invades France

Although the Slow Food Movement began in Italy and still has its headquarters there, the battleground between the forces of Fast Food and Slow Food seems to be France. After all, it was in France that farmer Jose Bové spent 8 months in jail for trashing a McDonald’s in protest against what he saw as the fast food invasion of his country… and then rode a wave of popularity into the 2007 presidential race.

This summer I spent seven weeks in France, diligently doing research for this column. While I never once ate at a fast food restaurant, I certainly saw lots of them, and they seemed to be doing a reasonable business. Whether their customers were actually French or foreign tourists I didn’t determine either, but I did find out that a McDonald’s burger in France can be ordered on a ciabatta bun with a spicy Dijon sauce, and accompanied by a glass of wine. Still, many in France deplore what they see as the undermining of their culture. Food is such a vital part of French life and culture, that anything which might weaken its essential “French-ness” is seen as an attack on the nation itself. And, it must be said, Fast Food is seen as an evil American phenomenon (even though there are many French fast food chains) and its spread is often equated to the Americanization of France.

However, McDonald’s (“Mc-do” en francais) and the other fast food restaurants are getting some competition from a new trend in French cuisine: “Fine Fast”. Several chains of restaurants have sprung up to offer good, healthy food with fresh ingredients, but in the quick and friendly style of fast food burger joints. Cojean is one such chain with about a dozen restaurants around Paris that serve vegetarian sandwiches, curry wraps, and other healthy choices, made daily with fresh, quality ingredients. Another chain from Belgium has opened its first Paris restaurant, advertising food that is “natural, fresh, and ready.” But the most shocking development in the upscaling of fast food is the opening of L’Ouest Express by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. Bocuse, perhaps the world’s most famous chef, is credited with popularizing “nouvelle cuisine” and his Michelin three-star restaurant in Lyon, the capital of French haut cuisine, is a place of pilgrimage for foodies all over the world. Now, he has opened a fast food restaurant outside a cinema in Lyon! True, it’s fast food with a difference: rigatoni (fresh cooked in front of you) with boletus mushroom sauce, chevre sandwich on sun-dried tomato ciabatta with olive-tomato tapenade… or how about the daily special of sliced chicken in a Basque sauce of tomato, onion, and sweet red Espelette pepper with rice and salad.

While this evolution in fast food is welcome and meets some of the goals of the Slow Food Movement, there still are many aspects of this kind of eating that are unfortunate. One of the pillars of European culture is the civilized lunch. It is the standard in Europe to close everything down for at least two hours at lunch time so that employees and employers alike could enjoy a real, sit down meal. The increasing popularity of the fast lunch, no matter how upscale, corresponds to the gradual demise of the long lunch, and, in the eyes of many French people, the increasing Americanization of their culture. The traditionally close relationship between food producers and consumers is another victim. Local markets, even in France’s big cities, allow shoppers and farmers to meet face to face and discuss their common interest: food. As family cooking is increasingly replaced by convenience foods, and leisurely lunches become a quick snack, both this relationship and heirloom recipes are likely to gradually erode.

All is not doom and gloom. The markets in France are alive and very well. Every village has its market day, and no matter where you are, you’ll find a market with fresh produce, butcher stalls, cheese booths, spice and olive wagons, honey, wine, olive oil, and dozens of other products in colourful display. Bistros and fine little restaurants can be found everywhere, and even the most humble of village bars seems to take pride in offering daily specials and house specialties for lunchtime diners. In one small village I hopped off my bike at the Bar du Sport (Sports Bar) and ordered the daily special: an enormous salad, shoulder of lamb served with beans and potatoes, a selection of fine cheeses, and crème brulé… a carafe of wine and coffee were included for the 13€ price (about $20)!

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