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France: No, They Don't

August 15, 1991|ELIZABETH STROMME

France has long enjoyed a reputation for great food, thanks to the discriminating palate of the French and their obsession with the finest ingredients.

But lately, the French have been dropping their standards like hot potatoes.

It may not be obvious to the average tourist, but to someone who's poked around bistrots, shopped the markets and hung out in French kitchens off and on for 20 years, it's all too apparent: French food is going downhill.

Starting with the \o7 cafe au lait \f7 of one's \o7 petit dejeuner.\f7

Oh, the coffee's up to snuff, all right. But when it comes to the milk the French pour into the \o7 cafe\f7 , they seem to have misplaced their taste buds. How else can you account for the saturation of sterilized milk on the market? It's practical, the French say. Can be stored forever. We like it, they even add weakly.

Well, they should be made to drink their own words--in a side-by-side comparison of UHT (ultra-haute-temperature) milk and a pitcher of fresh, frothy milk from Normandy.

Trouble is, you can't find regular milk anymore. It's fast disappearing from the grocery shelf. Give the species another five years.

At least the French have their \o7 baguette, \f7 right? That skinny loaf of bread whose characteristic crust and soft, chewy interior blends so well with Camembert, \o7 civet de lapin\f7 and \o7 rillettes?\f7

Yes, the \o7 baguette \f7 is still here, but it's not the same animal. For political reasons, a succession of French governments have kept the price of bread low--at the cost of its quality.

Result? A \o7 baguette \f7 that chews like sawdust, tastes like air and dries to the consistency of a loofah in less than five hours.

You can always try to console yourself with one of those luscious-looking apple tortes you see in the \o7 patisserie \f7 window. But if you find the apple filling insipid, you're not alone.

In France, the second largest apple-producing country in the world, only three hybrid varieties (American, by the way) account for 80% of the apple market. Meanwhile, old-fashioned varieties have vanished from the market stalls, if not from the earth.

Of course, there are pockets of France where old traditions die hard. And a number of associations fight to keep France's rich culinary heritage alive. But it won't be easy. A recent phenomenon illustrates what they're up against.

In an effort to fill the nutritional void left by the \o7 baguette\f7 , the most sophisticated \o7 boulangeries \f7 now offer a range of specialty breads in various shapes and sizes.

But with a few notable exceptions, it's all pretty pathetic. Old-style bread? These breads are as dry and bland as the \o7 baguette; \f7 they're just a slightly duller color. The irony is, customers are now invited to pay more for a semblance of what they got before.

And they're buying it; more and more, the appearance of food is taking precedence over taste. Take the Verte Galante de Marennes-Oleron, for example, a new, improved oyster that's just been awarded its own label. To get the stamp of approval, each oyster must meet a number of criteria, including a greenish tint guaranteed to stay within the Pantone color range of No. 574 to No. 578.

Whatever the reason, French food is slipping badly. Maybe it's a combination of cynicism behind the counter and indifference in front. Or, more disturbing, maybe the French can't recognize genuine quality any more. Price, appearance and practicality are becoming more important than flavor.

If so, they'll be following in the footsteps of Americans, whose capitulation to the interests of agribusiness is nearly complete.

And then, where will the rest of the world be, with no French food to look up to?

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