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LIVING IN PARIS

Revealed – the hot French dining trend that’s delicious, traditional and cheap

Every weekend a queue snakes down the street not far from the Moulin Rouge in Paris. This is not some hoard of clueless foreigners easy prey for the tourist traps that dot Pigalle and Montmartre.

Revealed - the hot French dining trend that's delicious, traditional and cheap
The new Chartier in Montparnasse. Photo: AFP

These are savvy and often stylish Parisians eager to sit down to one of the best value meals in the French capital.

Earlier this month the Bouillon Pigalle's egg mayonnaise was voted the best in the world by a jury of French gastronomes, beating Michelin three-star restaurants and the version served up by President Emmanuel Macron's kitchen at the Elysee Palace.

For just €1.80 you can feast on this simple but exquisite French culinary classic.

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Chartier is one of Paris' oldest bouillon restaurants. Photo: AFP

So it is easy to see why the crowds are flocking there and to a clutch of other older and grander “bouillon” restaurants, which serve classic French comfort food at modest prices.

These places, where you can eat well amid Art Nouveau splendour for as little as €20 for three courses, are having something of a revival.

“What is not to like about this?” declared Edouard, the moustachioed patriarch of the Bordier clan, with three generations of his family from the Paris suburbs seated around the table at Bouillon Julien.

“Just look at this,” he said, pointing at the enormous cream profiterole before him and then sweeping his hand out to take in the restaurant's original Belle Epoque decor.

“And they say the French no longer know to live!” he laughed.   

The South Korean fashionistas at the next table, where singer Edith Piaf once dined daily, told AFP that it was their “favourite and cheapest meal” since they arrived.

One, Kim Bo-young, liked its thick paper tablecloths so much she wondered aloud about making a dress out of them.

Bouillons were invented to serve up cheap soups and stews at speed to busy Parisians in the 19th century.

The traditional classic egg mayonnaise. Photo: AFP

“Bouillon” means broth in French, and it was from the restorative qualities of their principal dish that the word “restaurant” comes.

Bouillon Julien went back to its roots last year and lowered the prices for its clever hearty food after restoring the frescos and mosaics in its beautiful 113-year-old interior.

Walking through mahogany dining hall with its glade-green walls is like “going back in time”, said Kim, 32, tucking into a rabbit terrine with nuts and ravigote sauce for €5.20.

It is a similar story at Chartier – the daddy of all Parisian bouillons which has been going since 1896 – where the white-aproned waiters write down the orders on the paper tablecloth before totting up the bill with head-spinning speed.

Chartier opened a second enormous restaurant earlier this year in Montparnasse in the south of the city with a stunning brass and tiled interior that dates from 1903.

Serving traditional starters like snails and leek vinaigrette at unbeatable prices, the hip French gastronomic guide Le Fooding saw it as further proof of the trend towards “le retrofoodisme” that has seen French diners re-embrace butter.

Its director Alexandre Cammas said the bouillon revival was a part of a wider return to comfort food.

“This is cooking that gives you a big hug in contrast to (top-end) cuisine which can be very refined and cold,” he told AFP.

But Chartier boss Yann Hulin bristled at the thought that there was anything in the least trendy about what they were doing. 

“We have just kept doing what we always did.

“If there is a trend, it is to copy us,” he said, in a swipe at Bouillon Julien and Bouillon Pigalle, which is setting up a second dining room that will feature Alsatian food at a historic brasserie famous for its frescos near Republique next year.

Hulin said that having been made to pay through the nose for trendy food, the public want to be served quickly and “eat good and cheap food, that is prepared simply and well”.

The high turnover of diners allowed Chartier and the other bouillons to keep their prices down, he added.

In another twist on the trend, the Mamma group also have diners queueing around the block at its Paris eateries for back-to-basics Italian trattoria food, with one restaurant-cum-street market set over 4,500 square metres. 

Jean-Christophe Le Ho of Bouillon Pigalle said sourcing quality ingredients direct from producers also cut out the middleman.

He said his nostalgic menu was about rediscovering the joy of eating traditional French dishes that are being threatened by fast food, pizzerias and sushi joints. 

A century ago Paris had 250 bouillons before their numbers withered to just one.

But the “strong demand we have found… for these dishes our grandmothers made” shows they very much have a future, Le Ho insisted.

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FOOD & DRINK

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

The war in Ukraine and, in the longer term, climate change have prompted concerns about supplies and cost of food - but would France be able to produce enough to feed its population if necessary?

ANALYSIS: Is France food self-sufficient?

As food prices rise in France and elsewhere, questions over the country’s food security and self-sufficiency have been asked.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – a major exporter of wheat, corn and oil – has affected global markets, with prices for such products increasing dramatically, while sanctions imposed on Russia – the world’s biggest wheat exporter – following the invasion are also hitting prices. 

It has also prompted questions as to whether, if necessary, France could feed the 67 million people who call it home, while both the European Commission and the G7 set out plans to safeguard global food security. 

Unlike other countries, such as Switzerland, France does not have a formal policy of self sufficiency for food – though it does have a policy for energy security.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

“There is no risk of shortage in France because our agriculture and our agri-food sectors are strong and sovereign,” former agriculture minister Julien Denormandie said on March 16th, while acknowledging that the industry faced a number of challenges.

He pointed to the economic and social resilience plan published by ex-Prime Minister Jean Castex to protect the French economy from the the effects of the Ukraine war, and which included measures to, “secure our producers, our processors as well as our agricultural and food production from 2022.”

Food prices, as predicted, have risen, both for imports and for domestically produced goods as farmers are hit by rising costs for fuel. The agriculture industry has been among the sectors consulted and farmers have been singled out for support, in order that they will be able to minimise price rises to consumers.

In April 2020, at the height of the Covid pandemic, it was estimated that France imports about 20 percent of its food.

But France – a food exporter – could feed its entire population, according to a report by the think tank Utopies, published in April. There’s a reason the country has been referred to as the ‘bread basket of Europe’.

The study found that France currently meets 60 percent of its own food needs, but has the potential to become self-sufficient. The report said that the 26 percent of food products currently grown in France for export or incorporation into processed food could be used to cover 98 percent of France’s domestic needs, the report said.

Food processing in France, of which some 24 percent is currently exported, could cover 114 percent of the country’s needs in that sector, it added.

Of course food ‘needs’ don’t include luxury imported items like exotic fruits, chocolate and coffee, so diets would see a change in a completely self-sufficient France.

More recently, drought has also prompted short-term concerns, with French farmers worried about their harvests this year. 

France is the EU’s biggest wheat exporter, and one of the top five in the world. But hopes that French farmers would be able to offset at least some of the shortfall in the world’s supply of grain following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been hit by the record low rainfall so far this year, which have prompted warnings of a large drop in yields.

ALSO READ ‘No region has been spared’: Why the dry weather in France is causing concern

The forecast is for a smaller than usual French wheat harvest this year. With wheat-producing states in the US such as Kansas and Oklahoma also suffering in drought conditions, a poor harvest in France this year could be particularly significant – and could lead to wheat prices rising even higher in the short term.

At the height of the pandemic, president of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants agricoles (FNSEA) Christiane Lambert told Les Echos that there were two key pillars to ensuring food security and independence in France – the ability to produce and the ability to store. 

“No one bought French flour anymore because foreign flour was cheaper,” Lambert said. “So we produced less. But with the coronavirus crisis, it was necessary to respond to demand and therefore relaunch the production lines by running them day and night to avoid shortages.”

French agriculture was able to meet the challenge then. “We have in France a complete ecosystem which allows us to control all the links in the food chain … It must be preserved if we want to be sovereign over our food,” Lambert added.

But there would need to be a change in philosophy about food, according to Les Republicains’ senator Laurent Duplomb.

In France, “entry-level” agricultural products are mainly imported, since authorities have insisted on reorienting domestic production towards quality over quantity.

“We must also stop focusing on high-end agriculture because food sovereignty means being able to produce for everyone,” Duplomb said back in 2020. 

“The risk in a few years is to have two French consumers. The first will have the means to buy top-of-the-range French products, the second will be condemned to consume only imported products since France will no longer produce them.”

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