There’s nothing like the salty smell of aged goat cheese first thing in the morning.
Walking through a local street market in France will forever be Exhibit A when dissecting the different food mentalities between France and the United States.
On this particular Saturday morning, half of the small Burgundian village of Charlieu has come out, even though a spring thunderstorm raged through only minutes before. Water droplets are still tumbling off of the occasional leaf, striking an unsuspecting forehead.
Along a simple pedestrian island between two one-way roads, street vendors cozy up next to each other, each filled with fragrant offerings for the casual passer-by.
Walking through the fruit stand brings the rich smell of fresh strawberries in one nostril and cantaloupe in the other. The fruit king stands guard over his mountain of cantaloupe, proudly explaining to an older woman with a rolling grocery cart how the cantaloupe has started to ripen in France. This means they’re slightly less sweet than their Spanish cousins, but a full day fresher.
He then points to his strawberries.
“These are picked from the fields on Wednesday, some even Thursday,” he boasts to the madame with a friendly smile.
We next pass the cheese van (i.e. a magical pop-up truck that is part supermarket deli in America part Disneyland ride). The large glass display is filled to overflowing with over a hundred varieties of cheeses, many produced only a few hours away, at most.
Just next door, a pan the size of a semi-truck wheel is bubbling with andouillette, the local sausage specialty. It simmers in, what is literally an intoxicating mixture of red wine, peppers, and onions. If you stand there long, breathing in the fumes, you’d be unfit to drive.
Stand after stand, locals queue in lines waiting to touch, feel, and smell the food at each stall; knowing precisely which cheese will go with their lunch wine or which fruits will blend perfectly into their fruit salad dessert.
It is a knowledge passed down through generations of grandmothers, as opposed to food celebrities on cable TV.
This, I’m reminded, is what is so astonishing about the food culture in France. It’s not taught in the classroom, rather it’s naturally digested over years and years of mandatory hours spent around the dinner table.
Obsessing over different details
The French typically obsess over where their fresh food is coming from, down to the department in France or region of an EU country.
You’ll find this especially true in French homes and on the front lines of street markets. Unfortunately, this is becoming less the case in French restaurants and cafés. A report by the New York Times in 2014 highlighted an increasing use of industrial foods in restaurants, especially where tourist traffic is heaviest:
“Even though France is renowned as a world capital of gastronomy, these days, odds have grown that a savory-looking entree or dessert — especially at establishments near tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame or Montmartre — may have been at least partly prepared by an industrial food giant, frozen, then reheated in a kitchen.”
This emerging capitalistic approach to food preparation is an affront to the average French person. As the New York Times goes on to report, stricter labeling regulations have now been put in place, “requiring restaurants to designate fresh dishes with a “fait maison,” or “homemade” logo. If a dish is unlabeled, some or all of it is presumed to come from an assembly line.”
Can you imagine how rarely you would see a similar seal if you were to eat out in America?
In America, on the other hand, traditionally the obsession has been over convenience and immediacy. Many people, especially those unable to shop at expensive farmer's markets, are comfortable enough eating fruit and vegetables that have been transported thousands of miles before landing on grocery store shelves if it means it is there on the shelf when we need it.
In a recent article published on the front page of the Washinton Post, it was reported that Americans are, unfortunately, depressingly illiterate when it comes to agriculture:
“For decades, observers in agriculture, nutrition and education have griped that many Americans are basically agriculturally illiterate. They don’t know where food is grown, how it gets to stores — or even, in the case of chocolate milk, what’s in it.”
Case in point, around the same time as the New York Times article, the Worldwatch Institute reported that “the average plate full of food on an American table has traveled 1500 miles before being eaten.”
Outside of the negative environmental implications of having to ship massive container ships and semi-trucks around the globe to support the practice, it’s also bad news for our bodies. Many of this transported produce is picked unripe and then either artificially ripened (in a process known as gassing) or so packed full of preservatives as to negate any true nutritional benefit.
Given a choice between the two obsessions, I think I’ll stick to the smelly French cheese from down the road.