|My right ear and left arm in a restaurant. The rest of me stayed at home|
What!!?? Good grief, did I really write that rubbish?! I do beg your pardon, it must be the weather. Or my tax bill.
Unfortunately, the fact is that up to 50% of French restaurants don't actually prepare or cook all the food they serve. They just heat up frozen dishes such as pizza and serve vegetables straight from the tin, or, in the case of many desserts, serve mass-produced items such as tarts and chocolate cakes straight out of the box or, where applicable, the fridge or freezer. So how can it possibly be right that they are currently allowed to call themselves 'restaurants' in their names and on their facades and menus, just like those restaurants that can actually be bothered to cook fresh food?
This is bad news for tourists of course, because the outside of all restaurants in a given price range look roughly the same and I'll bet a pound to a penny that 90% of tourists wouldn't know a good average-priced restaurant which serves real food from a bad one which doesn't. Until they are served that is, by which time it's too late. Even locals and those of us foreigners who have lived here for years need to be very careful when choosing to go to a restaurant for the first time. The only sure way is to ask someone who has already visited the restaurant concerned, but this isn't always possible, and tourists, of course, can rarely benefit from knowing someone who will send them to a good restaurant.
Are restaurant guides of any help? Unfortunately not, unless you are looking at the high end of the market, or reading a specialist guide. They just list restaurants irrespective of the quality, unless they have a really bad reputation.
Which leads me to one man's laudable attempts to clean up the restaurant business and sort the wheat from the chaff.
The story begins with the scandal which saw horse meat being passed off as beef in mass-produced lasagnes and other products. Nobody was charged in this scandal, and the national outcry it caused prompted the government to do something about it. The job was given to Benoît Hamon, a Delegate Minister for the Social and Solidarity Economy. He has drawn up a law proposal which would drastically increase the controls carried out within the food business and multiply sanctions for frauders by a factor of eight. This law is almost certain to be voted.
Now though a UMP deputy, Daniel Fasquelle, has proposed an amendment to it which would reserve the right to use the term 'restaurant' uniquely for establishments which prepare and serve fresh food. There would be exceptions of course - after all, it would be unrealistic to expect all restaurants to make food items such as cheese, bread and ice cream from scratch, although I do know some restaurants which do make their own bread or ice cream. What an excellent idea!
Many tourists come here with the expectation that food will be good everywhere, but they are often sadly disappointed with the fare on offer. This is not good for the country's image as a temple of gastronomical excellence. This amendment however would make it easier for them - and locals - to better know what they are letting themselves in for when they go into a restaurant. It would also reduce fraudulent practices in some restaurants, which pass mass-produced ingredients off as the real thing.
Some restaurant owners and professional bodies which represent them are against this proposal, saying that it would lead to severe job losses in the industry. But they are wrong, as the boulangerie business will attest.
It was extremely difficult to find a good boulangerie in France until 1995, when a law was passed which reserved the right to use the appellation 'boulangerie' uniquely for those bakers who actually produce their own dough on the premises. This has made things somewhat easier, although tourists and even some locals still have trouble knowing what a good boulangerie is so there is room for improvement. More importantly, it has saved the livelihoods of many bakers who were facing unfair competition from establishments such as those which merely bake products which have been factory-prepared, and the move forced producers of finished baker's products and pre-formed products to improve the quality of their offer, as real boulangeries were regaining the public's confidence and thus market share. (Incidentally, for those interested in the subject of finding good bread in France I wrote a detailed entry on it which you can read here. It's a must-read for tourists.)
France relies on the reputation of its restaurants and all things culinary, but that reputation has taken a serious battering over the last 25 years due to complacency, a lack of imagination when it comes to change which would be better suited to new tastes, and fraudulent practices. And as if that weren't enough, even France's ability to win international awards for food-related products and wine has diminished sharply. There was a time when the French would win a large majority of these awards, but these days they are majoritarily won by people and products from other countries. Did you know, for example, that this year's world cheese championship was won by a japanese lady and her cheeses?
The reputation of France's food and drink industry needs all the legislation and changes in mentality it can get if it is to improve, and the adoption of Daniel Fasquelle's proposed amendment would help not only the restaurant business, it would help to bolster France's reputation for excellence when it comes to food and drink too.