‘Farm-to-Table’ is a Necessary Return to Tradition in France

Many who visit France are romanced by open markets and wide selections of specialty stores: one for bread and pastries, one for cheese, one for meat. However, the ritual of daily shopping for fresh ingredients from nearby regions and farmers is giving way to big grocery chains — where the avocados never go out of season.

While for years eating locally was a lifestyle, both out of necessity and convenience, today’s France reflects an increasingly consumerist society. Campaigns are now launched to persuade people to stay local with their meals. But in order for French farmers — and the French economy — to survive and to protect the “terroir” of France, a lifestyle shift is necessary both in the home and in restaurants. Both rely on cheaper meals and out-of-season produce.

FROZEN OR ‘FAIT MAISON’?

Increasingly, even the most prestigious chefs are shifting from fresh produce to frozen entrées — meaning a well-cooked meal in France is becoming harder and harder to find. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that much of this shift can be attributed to increasing costs of both labor and food, stating that “many restaurants can no longer afford to prepare meals from fresh ingredients in their own kitchens.”

In 2014, Mark Bittman bemoaned the lack of good food available in France unless you are willing to pay, cook at home, or “hop in your time machine” — an idea I wouldn’t be opposed to.

These trends, of course, have negatively impacted the French economy and environment, which so heavily rely on the support of citizens and restaurateurs alike. Once the world capital for gastronomy renowned for its culinary expertise and the quality of terroir products, France today is laden with economic struggles and protests against imported food.

Enter the hipsters.

As kitschy farm-to-table restaurants appear in Paris and throughout France, it marks a clear return to tradition, almost stepping back to a time when chefs clamored to the markets as soon as vendors began to unpack boxes. As more established restaurants struggle with where to place “fait maison” labels, new restaurants such as Le Timbre and Table, rely on small menus and seasonal dishes to draw crowds. Other restaurants, like Eggs & Co., choose one ingredient to do well in many different ways.

But instead of needing to rush to the market themselves, many chefs now rely on Terroirs d’Avenir, which Paris by Mouth describes as “bring[ing] exceptional French products from small producers to Paris restaurants, revolutionizing our city’s dining scene along the way.” The company was founded on the belief of seasonal and local sourcing of everything from fish to cheese. By removing the often-frozen middleman, Terroirs d’Avenir rejuvenates the Paris dining scene, supporting local vendors along the way.

EATING LOCALLY A LA MAISON

But this struggle goes well beyond restaurants and into French homes. As a French friend explained to me, in France today it’s often more convenient to buy everything at a Monoprix or Carrefour rather than stop at a slew of specialty stores. Those who have the time, energy and desire to shop locally will do so, but those people are increasingly few and far between.

The French government is seeking to change this, taking the French lifestyle back to the days of markets over Monoprix. In early September, the Berges de la Seine was filled with Parisian food trucks and local vendors of produce, gelato, syrups and hamburgers, all made and sourced locally. With a farm-to-table approach, the festival on the banks of the Seine was largely filled with artisanal craftsmen, who have marketed centuries of culture and dubbed it, “La Fabuleuse Fête du Mangeons Local”.

The event website boasts that France today is nearly self-sufficient when it comes to food, with more than 48 percent of its surface land serving agricultural purposes. There are more than 5,000 farmers, 12,000 sheep and more than 750 local products in the Île-de-France region surrounding Paris, including artisanal, agricultural, organic and “transformed” products. The marketing campaign encourages the purchase and consumption of locally farmed, in-season produce, both to improve the French economy and reduce the environmental footprint.

Such campaigns were a necessary government — and cultural — response after the protests in July when farmers took to the highways in their tractors to prevent importation of meat and dairy products from Germany and Spain. In recent years, The Guardian reported, not only has the French diet changed to include less meat, but lower prices have significantly impacted the agricultural community. And while Paris is legally not able to provide financial aid to the farmers, pleading to the stomachs of locals seems to be just one small step in the right direction. While the statistics about farmers are booming, their profit margins aren’t. According to the Guardian, 10 percent of livestock farms are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Seventy years ago, a need for campaigns such as these would have been unthinkable. Why wouldn’t you want to eat the fresh produce and meat from France? But in an effort to save the increasingly lackluster cuisine that was once internationally renowned, younger generations are returning to the traditions of the past, a world where asparagus is only found in spring.

This story originally appeared on the Peacock Plume.