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FOOD & DRINK

Haute cuisine or hot dogs: What do the French really eat?

The land of fine dining where everyone sits down to a freshly cooked meal and a carafe of wine every day? Er, not exactly. In fact the French absolutely love fatty and sugary junk food. Here's what they really eat when they think no-one is looking.

Haute cuisine or hot dogs: What do the French really eat?
Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP

Pizza

Even really small French towns have a pizzeria or pizza truck, some places have pizza vending machines and in Paris you can go and get your pizzas made by a robot

French people eat on average 10kg of pizzas a year and in 2015 they were second in the world league table of pizza-eaters behind only the USA, but well ahead of the actual inventors of the pizza, Italy.

IN PICTURES Paris’ new robot-staffed pizzeria

Data from 2016 showed that there were some 13,000 pizzerias in France and 5,000 pizza trucks.

Nutella

This sugary chocolate hazelnut spread – which is actually Italian in origin – is close to a national obsession in France.

Baguette with Nutella is a popular goûter (after-school snack) for children and we can only assume that it’s the comforting memories of childhood that make French adults go so bonkers over the sticky spread.

In a list of the 10 most-sold groceries in French shops from 2020, Nutella jars of various sizes claimed four of the top spots, while Nutella flavoured biscuits claimed a fifth.

In fact the French love Nutella so much they will brawl for it. A couple of years back, a 70 percent Nutella discount at the Intermarché supermarket chain turned into a ‘riot’, with customers jostling and battling each other to get their hands on the pots.

Burgers

McDonald’s early years in France were a bit rocky, with French farmers trashing one site in protest. These days, however, France is McDonald’s most profitable market outside the USA and pretty much every French town has a McDo (although planning rules often exile them to retail parks on the outskirts of town).

By 2017, more burgers were sold in France than the classic jambon-beurre sandwich, although interestingly just 30 percent of burgers were sold at fast food or take-away joints, the rest were at sit-down restaurants.

McDo aside, many French restaurants pimp up their burgers and a good restaurant will serve a delicious handmade burger, cooked to your request (although it’s better rare or medium rare) with toppings often including a classic French cheese.

It’s considered correct to eat them with a knife and fork, which sounds mad until you see the size of some French burgers.

READ ALSO What explains France’s ravenous appetite for hamburgers?

McDonald’s is often the subject of protests in France, but remains very popular with French diners. Photo by Elliott VERDIER / AFP

Ready meals

Head to a French supermarket and you will find several well-stocked aisles of frozen or chilled ready meals.

Yes, French people are not all hot-shot chefs and many are either too tired, too busy or simply can’t be bothered to start sautéeing beef cheeks and braising shallots when they come in from work.

A survey from 2018 found that 83 percent of French people eat ready meals ‘sometimes or often’ and the effect on waistlines is becoming apparent with more than half of French people now overweight or obese.

Cheese  

One national stereotype that is true – the French really do love their cheese.

The average French adult eats 25.9 kg of cheese each year – equivalent of half a kilo a week or 70 grammes a day. And of the 96 percent of French people who eat cheese, 47 percent of them do it on a daily basis. 

For comparison’s sake, Americans consume a measly 15.4 kg per year and the British a mere 11.6 kg.
 
And of all the comfort foods that people turned to during lockdowns last year, cheese was the most popular, with an increase in sales of 8 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.
 
The French are not the world’s largest consumers of cheese though, on a per-person basis that is the Danish.
 
 
French vocab

La malbouffe – junk food

Un resto rapide – a fast-food restaurant

Les plats preparés – ready meals

Les additifs – food additives (not les préservatifs, those are condoms)

Un goûter – an afternoon snack, sometimes also referred to as un quatre heure because of the time it usually happens)

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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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