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FOOD & DRINK

Le Burger boom: What explains France’s ravenous appetite for hamburgers?

Burgers are everywhere in France – 80 percent of restaurants now offer it on their menus and its popularity is only increasing. Olivia Sorrel Dejerine explains how the country of fine-food become so obsessed with a simple Americanised creation.

Le Burger boom: What explains France's ravenous appetite for hamburgers?
Credit: Instagram / Coffee Club Paris

At lunchtime at the newly-opened Coffee Club in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, hungry customers were rushing in to fill their bellies with big, juicy, diner style burgers.

“The bread is the most important, then comes the meat and it absolutely has to have perfectly melted cheese in it,” said Julia, 31, describing her idea of a perfect burger. 

Julia who has become a regular at the Coffee Club told The Local she only ate burgers in burger joints where she knows it’s a specialty.

“Traditional French restaurants usually have burgers on their menus because it’s a popular meal,” said Julia.

“But I don’t think they put a lot of work in selecting the right bread, the good meat, so that’s why I never order it,” she said.

 

'A real French passion'

With 80 percent of restaurants in France serving a burger and specialist burger joints popping up around the country, the dish has become a real star of modern day French dining. 

For several years now, France's burger consumption has been soaring. In 2019 some 1.7 billion hamburgers were digested by the French, according the restaurant industry expert Gira.

“It’s enormous, it’s the only product in the food industry that has multiplied by 10 in terms of volume in the last decade,” Bernard Boutboul, president of the restaurant industry expert Gira Conseil, told the Local.

'A magic formula'

But where does this “hysteria for burgers” come from?

Before 2012 in France, burgers were nearly exclusively found in McDonalds and Quick (two fast-food restaurants), according to Boutboul. 

Today the iconic recipe, born in Hamburg and popularized in the US can be found in a wide range of French restaurants – streetfood joints, traditional brasseries and even starred restaurants.

“After the French restaurant Big Fernand introduced “the premium burger” in 2014, restaurant owners realised it was possible to create a burger of quality and 80 percent of them put one on their menu,” said Boutboul.

Eighty percent of the 145.000 restaurants in France (this includes brasseries, cafés, high standard restaurants…) which have a burger on their menu say it’s a top sell, according to Gira's statistics. 

“To the point that burgers served in restaurants have replaced the traditional steak-frites (a meal served in almost every French brasserie)”, said Boutboul.   

But why do the French in particular love the burger so much?

“It’s a magical formula,” said Boutboul.

“It contains the four products the French love the most: bread, beef, cheese and fries,” he said.

At the American themed diner Coffee Club in Paris' swanky 16th arrondissement, the burger is a bestseller.

An upgraded version of the American sandwich

It may sound ironic for some that a meal popularized in the US has become so famous in a country known for its haute cuisine. 

Far from colonizing France, the French's passion for burgers has on the contrary been the opportunity for chefs to take a stand against junk food and what we could call 'Americanisation'. 

“In restaurants, burgers are served on a plate, with French meat, fries made from French potatoes, it has been adapted to French standards, we’ve taken distance from the American aspect of the burger,” said Boutboul. 

“The French are gourmets, in the country of haute cuisine, we converted to “the good burger,” he said. 

 

Arthur, 34, who was having lunch at the Coffee Club, told the Local he recognised the French twist chefs had given the burger. 

“I live in the US, and I have to say that a burger in France will always taste better, it will always be better presented and its overall quality will be higher than in a fast-food, even in the US,” he said.

Today, he picked the vegetarian option over the real deal.

“I'm an absolute fan of burgers, but choosing the vegan or the veggie options allows me to still eat a meal that I love while making it more healthy,” said Arthur. 

“it’s a good alternative and plus it tastes really good even if it's not meat,” he said. 

The Coffee Club in Paris. Photo: The Local

More veggie versions

Founders of the Coffee Club, Margaux and Michel, chose to offer a range of different burgers – the traditional bacon cheese, but also with vegan steaks or with crispy fried chicken – because they know these are popular among their younger clientele. 

“It’s a way to please all kinds of people, vegetarians and others who like to vary from the 'ordinary' burger,” Michel told The Local.

“Crispy fried chicken is a recipe which is really trendy at the moment, that’s why we made a salad, a wrap and a burger with it,” he said.

 

Veggie, chicken, fish, beef, whatever the recipe, the burger is a top seller but some French do have mixed feelings about that dish. 

'Cheap, unhealthy and American'

Older generations in particular seem more skeptical about the tasty sandwich. Maryse and Bernard, respectively 88 and 89, who were also having lunch at the Coffee Club, told The Local they were aware of that passion for burgers but were far from sharing it. 

On that Tuesday afternoon, Bernard told The Local he “exceptionally decided to eat a burger, because it’s a specialty there,” but he usually never has it.

“It’s an unhealthy meal with bread and plenty of fats, and it comes with fries,” he said. 

“There’s only one burger that I ever loved, it was a potato burger that I had in an ordinary brasserie in the Perche (a province in Normandy),” he said.

“The bread had been replaced by potato pancakes, and it was the best thing ever,“ he said.

Both told the Local they believed burgers were so popular because “it’s cheap, nourishing and it comes from the US.”

“It’s faster to make a burger than traditional French meals where you have to peel all the vegetables, make the sauces, it takes way more time and it’s way more expensive will all the workforce it requires,” Maryse said.

Hard to beat, hard to make

This was a statement that many people in the restaurant industry seem to disagree with.

“A burger is really complicated to make,” said Boutboul. “You have to grill the meat, melt the cheese, toast the bread, and assemble all the ingredients so that it is served warm.” 

Margaux, co-founder of the Coffee Club, said a simple, good, homemade burger was hard to beat, but also hard to make.

“A burger is a basic, but like all basics, it’s difficult to make a really tasty one,” she said.

But the challenge of getting simple dishes right is one familiar to French chefs, who for generations have perfected the art of using few ingredients and enhance the taste of each separate one.

One restaurant, ISTR, in the capital's tourist hub Marais, decided to make its post-lockdown comeback by launching a bold new invention, an oyster burger.

Whether that becomes a success or not remains to be seen, but Boutboul was certain of one thing:

“The French have become true burgers fans, we’re talking about a real passion,” he said.

By Olivia Sorrel Dejerine

 

Member comments

  1. While the hamburger is named after the city in Germany, all stories I’ve heard (and all listed on Wikipedia) put its invention in the US. Almost certainly, the idea for putting a patty of ground beef between two pieces of bread came was an American invention. Was it named by some German sailors who wanted to honor their home port? Was it named after the Hamburg America Line? Was it named after Hannah Glasse’s “hamburg steak” from 1758? Or did it come from the Erie County State Fair in Hamburg, New York? (I’m torn between the last two.)

    The fries, of course, are Belgian.

  2. Your French restaurant/cafe burger is far more likely to be made from finely chopped (haché) beef than minced/ground beef. That makes a big difference.

  3. Sadly for the French you are consuming the most burgers than anywhere else on earth apart from USA. Yes the fast food restaurants are ubiquitious and have steadily helped to ruin French cuisine over the last 30 years or so. On top of that their passion for Pizza is astounding too. They don’t have Italian restaurants as other countries they are 80% fat pizza! Many mothers are either lazy, too busy or just incapable now to make proper nutritional meals. The result is seen everywhere fat unhealthy people, obese kids, diabetis on the rise even amongst the young

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

Whether it's Christmas dinner with your French in-laws or a meal with some new friends or neighbours, after you have been in France for some time you will probably be invited for dinner in a French home - so what should you expect and what manners do you need to know about? 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

In France, like every other country, manners and formalities vary – where you are in France, the age of the people you are socialising with and the social setting will all have an impact – some families are very formal and traditional while others are more casual.

Naturally the occasion matters too – a formal state dinner is very different to being invited round for a family meal with some parents from your kids’ school.

But here is a guide to some of the things you can expect, the first thing being that – in general – French dinners last longer than in the anglophone world and have several different courses, with short pauses in between that are intended to help facilitate socialising.

When you walk into your French friend’s home, the first thing you should do is say hello to everyone that is already there. Many anglophones underestimate the importance of saying bonsoir, and as such, risk being perceived as rude by giving a general ‘hello’ to the whole room.

There are some other faux-pas to keep in mind while eating in a French home, like keeping your hands on the table rather than in your lap. You can learn more from The Local’s guide on table etiquette:

READ MORE: Cheese knives, hands and wine glasses – French table manners explained

Step 1: Aperitifs

This initial step typically involves a light alcoholic beverage before food is served. Apéro has its own culture and  if you’re invited to apéro don’t expect food beyond a few little snacks. Apéro generally takes place between 6pm and 9pm, though certainly before dinner.

READ MORE: Apéro: All you need to know about the French evening ritual

But before your big meal with your French friends or family, you will likely be offered a glass of something – whether that be champagne, Kir (or Kir Breton, if you find yourself in Brittany), Pastis (for those in the south) or a light cocktail. This is the time of night where people are chatting with a drink in their hand, and that drink will likely be influenced by the region you are visiting, so if you are in the south west you might enjoy an Aperitif of sweet wine or a Pinneau if you’re in Charente.

In terms of snacks, the relatively universal trend is light and salty – so you might expect to see olives and nuts, and perhaps even some raw vegetables with a dip. 

For those looking to avoid alcohol, soda or sparkling water, like Perrier is often the go-to alternative.

Step 2: The Entrée

The entrée – not to be confused with the main course, as it often is in the United States – is the first course – the starter or apetizer. In French, the verb entrer means “to enter” and this is the symbolic start of the meal.

As with most parts of your French dinner party, the food and drink offered will depend on regional tastes, as well as what is in season. For example, during the winter, you might have an onion soup. 

The first course is often cold or room-temperature foods – like Œuf mayonnaise. Some other common appetizers are smoked salmon canapé and escargot, the latter most common in Burgundy.

If you are along the Mediterranean, you might be offered tapenade – a purée of chopped olives, capers, and anchovies, and if you are on France’s western coast you might eat oysters.

If you are given a specific utensil to eat with – for instance a special fork for snails or a long pick for bulots (whelks) – then that should be used. If you’re having oysters they are traditionally slurped, all in one go, straight from the shell.

At this point in the meal, there will likely be  bread on the table to accompany the food but remember to save some room, because there are lots more courses to come. 

Step 3: The Main Course

Now it is time for the plat principal. Hopefully you are still hungry.

Tradition dictates that you should let your host serve you with wine, and old-fashioned French households would say that this rule applies specifically to women, who should wait for a man to come pour their wine. That being said, times have changed and most younger French people cheerfully ignore this. 

The wine poured will be paired with the meal, and the French abide by the general rules that red wine goes with red meat and tomato-based dishes, while white wine goes with fish, seafood, and dessert.

One for Americans – in France it’s considered polite to keep your fork in your left hand, and your knife in your right, and try to avoid the temptation of switching as you cut through the meat.

While it is considered polite to finish what is on your plate, if you find yourself getting full you can always say “C’était délicieux, mais ça suffit” (It was delicious, but that’s enough). While it may be tempting to tell your host “Je suis plein” (I am full) – be careful of false friends, you might be accidentally telling your host that you are pregnant. 

READ MORE: From rude to mince: 21 French ‘false friends’ that look English

Step 4: Dairy

This step in the French dinner timeline is not for the lactose-intolerant. After finishing the main dish, your French host will likely take out a cheese platter.

As there are hundreds of different types of French cheeses, it would take a long time to list all of the possible options you might encounter. The main thing to remember is not to use your hands (or your fork) when eating cheese. That might sound a bit tricky, so you can consult The Local’s cheese etiquette guide to prepare for this part of the meal.

READ MORE: Best Briehaviour: Your guide to French cheese etiquette

In some households – especially with children – your host might offer you a yogurt instead of cheese. This will likely be a small pot (cup) of a plain yogurt that you can add fresh fruit or compote (cooked fruit) to.

Step 5: Dessert

Dessert in France comes after cheese (not before as in the UK) and is generally quite small. Do not go into the meal expecting to leave lots of space in your stomach for a huge, sugary banana split ice cream or a sticky toffee pudding and custard. Instead, dessert might consist of some light pastries, chocolate, or small crème brûlée (when eating crème brûlée it’s considered elegant to tap the burnt sugar layer to break it first, rather than just shoving your spoon into the dish).

While eating dessert, you might be offered a sweet wine, like one from Sauternes.

Step 6: Coffee

At this point, it might be pretty late at night, but you will likely still be offered a coffee. Typically, this will be an espresso. If you want a little dash of milk in your short coffee, you can always ask for a noisette

Step 7: Digestif

This is the true end to the meal. Now that you have finished eating, and you’ve likely had a few glasses of wine, your host might put away the wine and take out a bottle of Cognac, Amagnac or similar.

The digestif is meant to settle your stomach, and they’re usually pretty strong so be careful if you have to be up early the next morning. Depending on where you are in France you will often be offered a local speciality like a Calvados (apple brandy) if you’re in Normandy.

Digestif: Do France’s after-dinner drinks actually help to settle your stomach?

Children

If you’re invited for a family meal, expect that the children will eat with you and will probably eat the same thing.

Depending on the age, the children might go away and play while the adults have the cheese and dessert courses and continue to chat but it’s usual for even young children to sit at the table and eat the first course and main course with their parents.

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