France has long and rich gastronomic traditions that are deservedly admired all over the world. Food is one of the country’s favourite topics of conversation and, on all possible occasions, people delight in swapping tips about food shops and restaurants, not to speak of wines. Foreigners often find it hard to understand why so many French people have scarcely finished one meal when they start planning the next. In the French language, many metaphorical expressions have food or wine as their theme. General de Gaulle, who had a reputation for colourful turns of phrase, once expressed a sense of exasperation with the French by exclaiming: “how can you possibly govern a country that has 258 varieties of cheese?" (“Comment voulez vous governer un pays où il existe 258 variétés de fromage?”)
Given this deeply entrenched food and eating culture, it is sad indeed that the French, above all peoples, seem to have become so readily accustomed to the mediocre produce they now find in most of their shops and supermarkets.
When was the last time any reader can remember eating a tomato, an apple or chicken that tasted like a tomato, an apple or chicken? Not to speak of strawberries, now routinely sold out of season, that often taste no better than cardboard soaked in water. The answer is probably many years ago, unless of course you grow your own fruit and vegetables and keep hens in your back garden. But most people no longer have the space, the time or the inclination to do so. Perhaps also, French taste buds have been slowly numbed by having so few alternatives to bland and mediocre fare. It is only when one visits a deserted corner of rural France or a less developed country, in Asia for instance, that one fully realises how much taste has been lost over the years.
The underlying reasons for all this have been well rehearsed: In the space of just three or four generations, France has gone from being a largely rural, agricultural country to a constellation of large cities and built-up areas with big, almost abandoned spaces between them. Large retails chains like Auchan, Carrefour, not so long ago the world’s 2nd largest retailer and the more home-based Leclerc, have grown fast by serving large concentrations of population with large stores and fierce competition on prices. According to INSEE, the national statistics office, the average household spent 35% of its budget on food in 1960 but that figure has now shrunk to 20%, a quarter of which is spent outside the home. Of course, the general increase in living standards goes some way to explaining this, but there are also the attendant changes in life styles, with more two-adult households going out to work and children eating lunch at school. In parallel, agriculture in all its forms has become an industry and quantity has largely replaced quality. In all this, France has typically, some would say tragically, followed the same trend that has been apparent in the U.S for decades.
Even that time-honoured myth about France's two-hour lunches has faded. In French cities today, despite the willingness of some to perpetuate the myth by taking clients or foreign guests to a top-class restaurant, most employees are only allowed an hour’s break from their work and many are content to eat a baguette sandwich or a McDonalds cheeseburger. In the evening, after a long trek home in overcrowded buses or trains or through endless traffic jams, there is little energy left to do much more than heat up a ready-to-eat meal out of the freezer or fry fish fingers accompanied by pasta or rice, finishing off with a milk based, over-sweetened desert in a plastic container. Picard, a chain of frozen food stores, is now strategically placed in most high streets but its convenient and attractive-looking offerings turn out, more often than not, to be bland and devoid of real taste. Supermarket shelves overflow with sweet deserts of all kinds.
The food industrialists have not been slow to jump on the organic food bandwagon to try and persuade the French that they cannot only eat better but also more healthily. And, by and large, French consumers have fallen for it. In the town in which I live in the western suburbs of Paris, there are now no less than four organic food shops within a mile of each other, three of them belonging to national retail chains and the fourth a small shopkeeper. Having tasted their fresh produce, I must honestly report that I am not convinced of the need to pay more for apples or carrots that may have been grown without herbicides or pesticides but which do not taste perceptibly better. And some of their best ideas like cereals, nuts and dried vegetables available in bulk have been largely copied in the normal supermarkets. I wonder which one of the four will go out of business first - and which will survive when the organic bubble bursts.
In a word, food in France has been largely commoditised, in the same way that so many other goods and services have been, and commoditisation is having the same impact it has had on other industries. There will continue to be a mass market served by large retail chains charging the lowest prices they can without going out of business. To remain competitive, they will continue to squeeze every possible cost, from staff to transport to produce. But for a smaller number of more discerning consumers, perhaps more in France than in other European countries, who are willing to pay much higher prices for much tastier produce, there will be up-market specialist shops or market traders who either grow their own produce or source from carefully chosen suppliers. The losers will be the shops, supermarkets and traders with no discernible advantage in terms of price or quality.
I suspect that this fate is already befalling Carrefour, which used to be one of France’s most successful retailers, as well as an exporter of French food and retail know-how to the rest of the world, but is now struggling to reinvent itself. But that will be the subject of a future post.
(1) The title of a song from Lionel Bart’s musical “Oliver”, based on Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist”.