You can still eat me if I’m out of date

There’s a big drive in France right now, as in other countries, to cut down on food waste. And rightly so.

I have a massive guilt trip every time I throw away unconsumed foodstuffs and try and do this as little as possible. I will regularly buy 5 new ingredients to create a dish using just one other ingredient that I’m loathe to bin (see Prawn & mango salad). My husband, whose Serbian grandmother would recount stories of WWII when literally nothing went to waste, is capable of toasting a breeze-block like baguette at the end of its 3-day life.

So I was interested to see this infographic entitled You can still eat me if I’m out of date go past on Twitter the other day. It suggests you can still drink milk 2 months beyond its best-by date (the UHT kind only I assume…), and frozen food and pulses up to several years later. To put it to the test, I’m about to make a soup with split peas which supposedly went off in October 2015, and were hiding at the back of the cupboard. We’ll see how that turns out.

It’s difficult to know if the reportedly inaccurate best-by dates are linked to some evil conspiracy by supermarkets to force us to consume ever more, or just a means of covering their backs in a society plagued by supergerms and food scares.

In any case, I think it’s a good thing to encourage consumers to push the boundaries and use good-old common sense when it comes to the foodstuffs they buy, store and consume.

Burger mon amour

burger-heart

I find the current Parisian obsession with burgers completely baffling.

Like the mushrooming of crappy steak chains in the 90s (see previous rant on Hippopotamus et al), they seem to have sprung out of nowhere and in huge number.

I know that French cuisine has been criticised internationally for not innovating or evolving enough, but surely this isn’t the answer. I also get the whole “really-need-a-grease-fix” thing, but do we really need burger restaurants in such huge number?

There are at least four burger joints (five if you count McDonalds) within a square mile of where I live: Bio Burger, Big Fernand, Le Camion Qui Fume and Mamie Burger.

The latter occupies a large space on the corner of rue du Faubourg Montmartre and rue de la Grange Batelière in the 9th district. I walked past it for about six months on the way work while it was being built, naively expecting something exciting and original to materalise, only to have my hopes dashed. And why “Mamie Burger” anyway? Is the name supposed to evoke the traditional beef patties that Granny used to put between two pieces of bread? Because if your Granny is French it’s pretty likely she never did that.

Anyway, rather like the fish and chip fad that has swept Paris (see Perfidious Albion), I reckon this latest burger obsession is just a flash in the pan (ha ha).

While it lasts though I will continue my one-woman crusade against all things burgerly. And probably found the Parisian Anti-Burger Front (PABF). Or maybe even join forces with the Anti-Burger Front of Paris (ABFP).

 

What’s the difference between France and England?

portsmouth-truck-lorry-stop-cafe

I first realised there was a fundamental difference between British and French food cultures when I was about 24.

I’d obviously understood even before that that we weren’t wired in the same way. Like when I stayed with a family in Nantes for a week when I was 17. The mother cooked up the most amazing dishes from scratch every evening in what seemed like about 3 minutes, and despite them being about 95% fat, and therefore delicious, she was the thinnest person I’ve ever met (admittedly, chain smoking helped).

But the real epiphany came much later when I worked for Norbert Dentressangle. It’s not that the company has anything to do with food – it’s a French transporter whose fleet of truck drivers would regularly cross the channel to deliver their wares in an industrial estate somewhere in the UK. And it was the regular conversations with their French drivers that made me realise to what extent eating well is ingrained in the culture.

Once the drivers had completed their delivery, my job was to ensure that they returned back to France with a full load. That would mean their making an additional stop before leaving the country, and in many cases, spending the night in the UK. At which point the conversation would go like this:

24 year old me (you need to imagine this in really bad French): Hi. So I need you to be in (insert name of English town) at 9am to pick up 24 tonnes of gluten. (I never said this post would be glamorous)

Truck driver (also in French): Sorry, WHAT??!! I have to go to proceeds-to-massacre-prononciation-of-English-town??!!

Me: Um, yes please, you need to get there for 9am, which means you’ll need to find a truck stop somewhere this evening because you’re out of hours now.

Truck driver: This is a DISASTER!!

Me: Oh really, why is that?

Truck driver: Because it means I’ll end up having a chip sandwich for dinner or something equally as disgusting! If I could just get back to France tonight I’d be able to find a place near a Les Routiers restaurant and stay there instead.

The key word here is obviously Les Routiers. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, is a network of independent restaurants which serve up inexpensive but generally good, traditional food. At one stage Les Routiers inspectors would travel throughout France checking that each restaurant met with their standards, although I’m not sure that still takes place.

The point though is that in France, even those that are on what I presume was a modest income, would not only manage to eat well, they’d make it their absolute priority.

I’m not saying that none of our English drivers cared about food, but it certainly never came up in conversation when we asked them to spend the night somewhere (this was also due to a totally different work ethic, but that’s definitely a subject for a different time).

Nor am I saying that no one cares about food in the UK. I was lucky to be brought up by a brilliant cook who has always prepared hugely varied and delicious meals. But when we compared notes with friends at school this was definitely not the norm.

The big difference in France is that good eating is not considered the privilege of a happy few, and that’s still one of the main reasons I live here.

(Oh and I no longer work in transport – for someone who goes out of her way to avoid conflict it was just too much for me.)

Paris in chains

Whilst waiting in front of the cinema last week I had time to take a photo of an advert in the window of the local Hippopotamus, a chain of grill houses kind of like Beefeater in the UK.

hippopotamus

In addition to the crappy joke in the advert (it’s not worth translating) it’s a fairly horrible place. Not because it’s a chain (because there are quite a few that are decent like Le Pain Quotidien and Fuxia) and not because it’s not expensive, because I know tens of really great cheap places to eat, even in Paris.

It’s mainly because the place looks like it will suck the life out of you, and really goes against the whole food culture here. I remember doing an internship in Paris when I was 20, going back to England for a bit, and then finally coming back to live here definitively 5 years later and being horrified at the number of crappy restaurant chains which had mushroomed in Paris between the two visits – Hippopotamus and McDonald’s being the main ones that spring to mind.

It’s not that it’s worse seeing these in France than in the UK, I suppose I just had more of a romantic notion of France’s capacity to resist Anglo-Saxon style eating habits where boeuf bourgignon is replaced on the menu by a hamburger and TV screens are mandatory throughout the restaurant (see background of photo!)

Anyway, when it comes down to it there’s no reason why the French should be more immune to modern marketing methods than any other nationality (with that comment in mind, I will never reveal my actual profession…). But in protest, I will continue, like many French people actually, to boycott these places and try always to go to the little French café instead of the Starbucks and the independent bistro instead of Hippopotamus. Whilst probably sacrificing speedy service and polite, smiley waiters, but hey, you can’t have it all.

Perfidious Albion

Fish, Chips and Mushy Peas

In case you’re not familiar with it, Perfidious Albion is a derogatory term (once) used by the French to describe England – and specifically our capacity for treachery and general underhandedness. Charming.

I use this as a title because for the past 18 months now, the English culinary speciality fish and chips has been sneaking its way onto Paris’ bistro menus. And I still don’t really know what to make of it.

I hail from the country which has always been regarded by most with culinary disdain – I have lost count of the number of French friends who experienced “traumatic” school exchange meals of boiled beef followed by jelly for pudding. So I’m almost miffed that one of our few signature dishes is now suddenly the best thing since sliced bread.

The other part of me is chuffed that one of my favourite foods is now up there with other bistro classics like steak and chips and black pudding and mashed potato, because it is definitely just as deserving.

Fish, chips & tartar sauce at Frenchie to Go, not bad at all

I’ve tested three so far in Paris and was surprised that they were pretty good, or “better than anything I’ve ever tasted in England” according to the friend I went to Frenchie to Go with. I wouldn’t got that far (out of principle, and it was probably due to batter-induced euphoria) but it wasn’t bad at all, and definitely the best of the three: Frenchie to Go (5-6 rue du Nil, Paris 2) La Maison Mère (4, rue de Navarin, Paris 9) and Café Cacahuète (1 Rue Pierre Semard, Paris 9).

Le Figaro puts La Maison Mère at the top of its selection, although this article (in French) goes back a bit. Since then a fair few have sprung up, like George in the 10th.

cacahuète fish and chips

Slightly anaemic batter with decent chips at Café Cacahuète

My guess is that this is just a fad, and will drown under the weight of something else equally as perfidious to infiltrate Parisian menus – the dreaded hamburger (more on that in a subsequent post). In the meantime I’ll make the most of it while I can.

Next on the list is The Sunken Chip (39 Rue des Vinaigriers, Paris 10), probably the first Parisian fish & chippery and the one which set the whole craze off in the first place.