If there is anything I’ve learned in all these years of traveling, it’s that there is no substitute for first hand experience. No amount of reading or research can prepare you for what you actually find on the ground in a given place, there are just too many details, too much depth in an overwhelming volume of information to uncover. That’s why I had to go Back to France, to visit some places I’ve already been and see what changed, but mostly to go to places I’ve never seen, to see if what I’ve heard is true. Even after a decade of reading about France, of watching documentaries and travel shows, navigating endless chains of Wikipedia articles and scanning countless magazine articles and blogs in both English and French. I still found things I never knew existed, things I’ve never read about in any article and things I can’t really put into words.
I guess that’s why I take pictures.
If you’ve been following my exploits for any length of time, you know that my concern is with the foundation of cuisine. I focus my lens primarily on ingredients, then markets and vendors, farms and fishmongers, butchers and bakers. Restaurants are important, but it is this foundation of ingredients and tradition among the general population that everything else is built upon. As long as a strong foundation exists, whatever it holds can still stand, even if completely torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
After visiting dozens of cities and towns on this trip, driving from the Cote-d’Azur through Provence and the Rhône Valley to Lyon, then on through Burgundy and the Loire Valley, I offer a couple of observations. First, French Cuisine is alive and kicking. Second and just as importantly, the foundation of French Cuisine is still strong. I have to admit I was a little worried after all the things I’ve read over the years that all I was going to find was a cuisine completely ravaged by fast food and pre-packaged convenience foods, but that is not the case… yet.
If there was any indication to me that everything had not changed for the worst, it is when I set foot in the Avignon Les Halles. While I’m sure some of the vendors have switched out over the years, in principle, the Avignon central market is more or less the same as I left it a dozen years ago. The market still sells a huge selection of the products of the region and from other parts of France. You can buy everything from seasonal, local Provençal vegetables and olive oil to Bayonne Ham. Longtime mainstays of the market, like the fishmonger La Marée Provençale, are still displaying a dizzying array of pristine seafood manually arranged on a long bed of ice every morning, just as they have done for the last two decades and more. The butchers are still cutting meat early in the morning before any customers arrive, often from whole animals.
French restaurants have not given up on their regional products either. Tons of places in every town I visited prominently offered “produits du terroir” on a “menu du marché”. Indicating that they (or at least their customers) still care about the provenance of the food they are eating. Traditional places and “cuisine du pays” are still the rule. Just try walking into any of the long-standing old-school joints that serve the traditional cuisine of a particular region on any night without a reservation, you’ll find it full. This phenomenon doesn’t just apply to traditional sit-down restaurants. The longest line I saw for anything on the whole trip wasn’t for corporate fast food, it was for socca, a kind of plain chickpea flour pancake baked in a huge copper pan in a wood burning oven. This is a typical dish of the region of France near the border of Italy, one of many French-Italian hybrid dishes you’ll find here, along with straight Italian Cuisine.
So if the French still love their regional ingredients and traditional cuisines, what about all these doomsday scenarios about fast food, hamburgers and processed food? First, I would argue that PIZZA is actually more popular than burgers. Pizza was everywhere, not just near the Italian border, not just at places aimed at tourists. It seems like I saw more pizza on menus in France than I saw in Italy. Even in the most remote areas and in the smallest villages there were tiny pizza stands or in many cases, pizza trucks, stationed on the side of the road waiting for customers to drive by.
As for hamburgers, yes those were popular too, but not just the fast food versions. Restaurants with otherwise very traditional menus often had a hamburger or two, not as an alternative, as an addition. I saw everything from raclette burgers in Loire to “hamburgers Provençal” in Provence. I even had a burger at a joint in Burgundy that was called a “Burger Franchouillard”, meaning “typically French”. This burger had a patty called a “steak haché” and toppings like tranches de lard (fatty bacon), Camembert (runny cheese), roquette (arugula), confit d’oignons (onion jam) and sauce oignon. I have to say, it was a pretty good burger. Plus, hamburgers make some sense here given that white Charolais cows dot almost every field in Burgundy not filled with grape vines.
I don’t know what the future of French Cuisine looks like, but the present is actually looking pretty damn good. Moving forward, without forgetting the past. You see it in the market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which more or less takes over the whole town on Thursdays and Sundays, selling local products from all around Provence. Similar markets everywhere from Antibes in Côte d’Azur to Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy to Amboise in the Loire Valley, as well as city markets like the aforementioned Avignon Les Halles and the Les Halles de Lyon, will remind you how the food in France got its reputation in the first place. You might want to skip restaurants altogether and just find a place to stay with a kitchen. Just be careful of buying any hallucinogenic fish (eaten since Roman times), which I like to imagine is how Picasso came up with Night Fishing at Antibes and what put Van Gogh in an asylum in Arles during their time here.
As far as less formal approaches to dining go, there are many examples. A few good ones are Le Bistro du Fromager in Nice, which is run by two brothers, one in a two-man kitchen and one on the floor. These guys care a great deal about what they are serving and giddily explain that your biodynamic wine (all they serve) was made on a farm by some guy with two last names, he used one for the red and one for the white. You can still afford to eat here though, you can show up in jeans and even physically choose your own cheese plate from the cold case filled with about 30 different varieties. Fou De Fafa, a restaurant in Avignon whimsically named after a Flight of the Conchords song is making beautiful traditional French cuisine from regional products, but the couple who runs it just happen not to be French. Oh Terroir in Orléans is an actual “Bistronomy” joint that serves items all made from regional products, in the manner of fast food. You order from a touch screen, pay and sit down. Your meal is made from scratch and delivered to your table.
I personally love old-world places like Café des Fédérations in Lyon, for whatever Lyonnaise dishes they are serving that day and extremely simple places like Le P’tit Coin in Charolles, a tiny local joint that serves nothing but Charolais steak and fries. It’s hard to go wrong in some of the newer places though. If you overdose on French Cuisine (strictly speaking) and want a pizza, the La Cabane pizza truck in La Croix-en-Touraine has got you covered. They also use regional products and sell local strawberries from the same truck.
Are there threats to French cuisine? Yes, but they are the same threats faced by all cuisines. Every place I went still had small local boucheries, pâtisseries, fromageries and poissonneries selling regional products, and beautiful local produce was available at more smaller markets than I could even count. But… every town also had an increasing number of giant supermarkets carrying versions of the same corporate products found in every supermarket in the world, and giant chain restaurants. This is not unique to France, I’ve seen the same thing everywhere, even in China. It seems like these places all operate on the same model, largest volume, lowest price, central distribution. Oddly, most of the produce in big French supermarkets… was from Spain.
I know quite well the possible outcome. I’ve seen it in numerous small towns all over America, where it is increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to find a local place to eat or buy any of the products of the region. If you are buying food or eating out in these places, it’s at a giant chain… the same giant chains as in every other town. While a playful Flight of the Conchords song might best describe the current state of the New French Cuisine, in much of Small Town USA, the old Fugazi song Five Corporations off the album End Hits was pretty prophetic. In little towns all over France, such a thing is potentially devastating.
Hamburgers Provençal and pizza trucks, though, aren’t really a threat to French Cuisine. They may sound odd, but a French love of burgers is no more odd than an American love of French fries (forgive me Belgium). Pizza? A natural fit. Anyway, these things are already past and present. The future, however, is a blank slate. The menu for tomorrow? It always remains to be seen.