Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel on an organized trip to Southern France as part of a three-day culinary exploration of the region that included trips to the small Provençal town of Fayence, the city of Nice, and Cannes. Over the course of the long weekend, we sampled no less than twenty bottles of wine, four bottles of olive oil, dozens of fresh baguettes, five cheeses, six types of sausages, and rounded this off with a daily three-course (and three hour long) meal. But perhaps the most incredible part was that all of this food came from the same fifty-mile radius.
The trip was a whirlwind experience, though one that was nevertheless immensely peaceful and valuable. It would be undoubtedly boring, however, to relate the trip to you as an exhaustive list of the activities and experiences. Rather, I want to begin a discussion on the food culture of France, especially in comparison with that of Northern Europe and the United States, two cultures with which I am more familiar. This comparison, I think, will help to illuminate some of the broad differences in food culture between Europe and the United States.
French Food Culture
Like in Danish culture, food plays an important role in French culture. This is, in fact, a theme that seems to pervade Europe, certainly more so than in the United States. Meals are to be a communal experience, and they are not to be hurried. The food is incredibly rich (I had a soup made of what I believe to be pure melted butter, with a slice of melted cheese and a drizzle of olive oil on top), though portions are small and enjoyed very consciously and slowly. It was not uncommon for our meals to last three hours, with ample time between courses to chat, digest, and enjoy the dining experience.
Access to high quality food is also placed at a premium in France. In the United States, we often think of two areas as being particularly deprived of high quality, local food: inner-cities (what some in public health term ‘food deserts’) and very rural areas, which ironically export much of our produce but are left with few fresh products of their own. Having visited both an inner-city area and a rural town in France, however, I was struck by the availability of such food options. Towns both large (like Nice) and small (like Fayence) have daily markets with local venders offering fresh produce, sausage, and cheese (in addition to non-food items like soap or flowers). No neighborhood is without its boulangerie (or three!) where residents can buy inexpensive and high-quality fresh bread and pastries, usually baked only hours before and often still warm from the oven.
A Case Study: Baguettes
It seems to me that baguettes represent a lot of the important characteristics of French food culture. The historical development of baguettes is actually somewhat interesting and enlightening. One of the enlightenment reforms made in France during the late 1700s was to implement labor laws governing the number of hours an employer could ask employees to work, and hours during which this was acceptable. These new restrictions made it difficult for bakers to continue selling their sourdough products, which were very time intensive and involved unlawfully early mornings. French bakers needed a type of bread that they could make somewhat quickly, in order to have products ready for the breakfast rush, but that would still have a distinct and delicious taste. Hence the simple baguette, with its distinctive crunchy outside and soft inside, was born.
Baguettes, though, are fascinating because of their ubiquity in France. It is a common occurrence to see people walking around on the streets with a fresh baguette or two that they have picked up at a local boulangerie. A majority of French people, I have heard, buy baguettes on a daily basis. And so they should–not only are they delicious, but they are inexpensive (around 1 USD each) and go stale quickly, meaning that they must be replaced often.
Baguettes really serve to draw an important distinction between American and French food culture. Baguettes are made fresh with the intention of being consumed in the immediate future. They are inexpensive and available to the masses, and people from all walks of life will gladly wait in line daily for their fresh baguette. They are made from simple ingredients, usually just flour, water, salt, and yeast. The availability of fresh baguettes reflects the larger French cultural value that good food is to be fresh and consumed quickly after preparation, that good food takes time, and that food should be made from simple and high quality ingredients.
In the United States, on the other hand, we have found a different solution to bread. We manufacture vast numbers of bread-shaped sponges, loaded with strange ingredients you can’t pronounce and that will last for weeks on end without becoming noticeably different. We buy these sponges at the supermarket for consumption over a long amount of time. Convenience, then, has taken control of our bread-eating habits, as it has in many other facets of American life.
Baguettes are not nearly as ubiquitous in Denmark; however, there is also a strong reverence for bread in the frigid north. A friend described to me what his host-mom called the ‘Danish Mom Syndrome,’ which is that there must be fresh-baked bread in the house at all times. This reflects, I think, the more general European reverence for fresh food compared to much of the United States.
My trip to Southern France was a wonderful experience, from both a culinary and a life perspective. It has allowed me to better frame the eating traditions to which I have been exposed, and I have come away with a better understanding not only of European food culture, but also of American food culture.
Have you had any similar eye-opening inter-cultural experiences? Tell me about them in the comments!