PARIS/FRANCE and…the Five Food Groups

PARIS/FRANCE and…the Five Food Groups

Per our December 2, 2019, post, “Paris/France and…” is a series wherein “and” leads us to categories whose subcategories link to the city/country we know and love. Having explored Paris/France and Body Parts, Paris/France and Colors and Paris/France and the Classical Elements, we move on to Paris/France and the Five Food Groups. Bon appétit!


#1 VEGETABLES – A story

On a roadtrip through France in the early 1970s, a friend and her husband came upon a restaurant in a litttttle litttttle square in a litttttle litttttle village in the deep center of the nation. Having decided several months earlier to give up meat, they ordered plates of vegetables then chatted away about the next stop on their itinerary as they waited for their meals. Suddenly, their waiter reappeared, a grim look on his face. He told them they had to order meat. They told him they didn’t eat meat. He told them they had to order it. Their faces lit up when they finally thought (operative word here: “thought”) they understood what was going on: They assured the waiter that he could charge them for meat dishes and they would gladly pay–although they did not intend to actually order and eat them. The waiter told them they had to eat the meat dishes. Otherwise, he stated, they would be “insulting the chef”! When they dared to use the word–when they dared to say that they were “vegetarians”–the waiter threw them out!

PARIS/FRANCE and…the Five Food Groups

What a difference 50 years make. Now, not only in Paris but throughout the rest of France (even near and in some of those litttttle villages), vegetarian restaurants ranging from the simple to the Michelin-starred are enhancing the country’s stellar gastronomical reputation (one of these many pages’ of sites even features an article entitled “An Exciting Time to be a Vegetarian Living in France”).

That said, a culture does not divest itself of two millenniums of tradition in one 1/40th of that time, as witness the choice a vegetarian has to make when invited to a meat-eating French family’s home for a meal. These are near-guaranteed lose-lose situations. There is no universally right option. There is no universally wrong option. Each situation will dictate the path you take. You must decide for yourself. We can’t help you with this. And, lamentably, you will almost always be disappointed: Either you tell the hostess and host beforehand that you do not eat once-living creatures, thereby–given the supremely crucial importance in France of receiving guests “correctly,” with a potential for irrevocably altering for better or worse one’s self-image and reputation–sending the couple into a frenetic, manic tizzy of trying to educate themselves over the course of several days in the entirety of vegetarian history, geography, philosophy, practicality, so as to please you as a guest and save their good name…or…you say nothing, eat whatever paltry vegetables have been put on the plate as garnish and pretend to consume the meat by cutting it into microscopic morsels and moving it ceaselessly around with your fork. “Mmmnn–delicious! Yes, I love it! Thanks for making this for me.”

In the first case–although during the meal that winds up resembling nothing you would ever fathom assembling for yourself (quinoa-pasta salad with sprinklings of parsley-infused tofu), you have graciously answered all their machine-gun questions about what you ate this morning, how you get your protein, if you have brought malnourished children into the world—the couple has become so stressed, destabilized, traumatized, that they will not only never ask you back for dinner, they might end their entertaining days right then and there for good! In the second case, you leave their place really, really hungry. 

And we’re not even going to get into the gauntlet that vegans must run.


#2 FRUIT – A clarification, a warning, a little bonus 

* On dessert menus, especially in the spring and summer, you will see fruits rouges: either fruits rouges alone, or ice cream or cake covered in a coulis (a type of sauce, as the verb couler means, among other things, “to flow,” “to trickle”) of fruits rouges, or ice cream made from fruits rouges, etc. This does not refer to any-old fruit that happens to be red (and notice that “fruit” is a countable noun in this instance in French). This has nothing to do with apples, rhubarb, watermelon, or the ever-elusive tomato, disputes about whose vegetableness or fruitness have kept many an otherwise dull New Year’s Eve party from disbanding too early. Fruits rouges = BERRIES–even the non-red type! Here (in French) is a list of them all.

PARIS/FRANCE and…the Five Food Groups

* Do not spend your hard-earned euros on raisins thinking that what you’ll be getting are those little dried brown things. Raisin = “grape.” If you’re looking for the treats that help give trail mix their sweetness, what you need to ask for are raisins secs (logically, “dried grapes”).

* And now (click this link) for that little bonus: (For info: Trouve is the familiar [tu] command form of trouver–“to find.”) 


#3 DAIRY PRODUCTS: – Questions

What could we possibly choose to focus on here? Hmmmm….

* Could it be…..MILK? Heavens, no! All due respect to the great Louis Pasteur, milk is a very non-French beverage. Yes, babies drink it and it might (operative word here: “might”) be served as an alternative to increasingly disparaged sugar-saturated sodas and juices with an after-school snack, but ordering milk in a French eating establishment would seem almost as bizarre as ordering a nice big pitcher of gasoline. Nor would you even be sure to find any on the premises (except maybe for the wilted old carton at the back of the fridge near the bar for that weird tourist who might want a drop of the stuff in her tea). 

* Could it be…..ICE CREAM? Heavens, no! Maybe it’s the cost of the electricity to run the freezer. Maybe it’s a supply-and-(relatively feeble)-demand thing. Maybe they are throwing cash at world-renowned chefs charged with ensuring gustatory perfection in every scoop. But even in a capital city with ten-euro cups of coffee and visibility-challenged nouvelle-cuisine portions, when you order ice cream, you think they’re kidding: You think that after having brought out the thimble-sized dollop tied to the shipping-container-sized price, they’re going to smile sadistically at your shock then return with…well…ice cream as you know and love it. The kind you can actually find at the top of the cone or in the hollow of the bowl. The kind you can pay for with some of the loose change in your pocket.

* Could it be…..CHEESE? YES! (You saw this coming, of course.) And this is our cue to highlight Charles de Gaulle’s legendary “How can you govern a country that has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” — Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage? As well as this site, https://www.fusac.fr/cheese-2/where if you click on as much of the abundant info on the plentiful pages behind every one of its links in every one of its corners as possible, you’ll have something to do while savoring all those tall, chilled glasses of…[that refreshment whose name starts with “m”].


#4 GRAIN-/CEREAL-FOODS – A fraction of related facts

* Other definitions of the word baguette (which for our purposes here is the traditional long French bread): stick, wand/magic wand, rod, chopstick, conductor’s baton, drumstick (for playing drums; the poultry kind is pilon). All these definitions make sense, given the shape of the baguette, whose full name–even more sensibly–is baguette de pain: “stick/wand/rod of bread.”

* While at the end of the 1950s/the beginning of the ‘60s there were approximately 50,000 bakeries in France, that number dropped to approximately 32,000 in 2017, due to a general reduction in classic bread’s place of honor in a meal and to competition from its factory-made cousin. Counting on the public’s outrage at industrialization’s steady poisoning of the time-honored well, the latter challenge has been countered by the creation of an appellation boulanger (“designation of baker”) for artisanal bakeries where absolutely every aspect of bread creation takes place on site, as opposed to partially or wholly in a factory–similar to the kinds of protected designations (appellations protégées) bestowed upon, among others, champagne (only wine from the Champagne region can be called champagne), brie de Meaux cheese (only brie from the town of Meaux can be called brie de Meaux), etc.

* Per a wildly amusing website (give it time to load) that offers continually updated accounts of how many baguettes have been consumed in France since January 1 and how many since you connected to this site, 320 were eaten EVERY SECOND in France in 2017 (must be tons more by now), bringing the yearly total to a whopping TEN BILLION (ditto)! (This [French-language] site also echoes the above info as to the reduction in French folks’ bread consumption as compared with that of six decades ago, and, as you scroll down, provides a brimming bread-basketful of fascinating facts and figures.) 

* Although the French government used to recommend that a baguette weigh 250 grams (gram-to-ounce conversion here), weight unification never really took hold, with regional preferences being the determining factor. A Parisian baguette does weigh in the neighborhood of (operative words here: in the neighborhood of) 250 grams (maybe because Paris-based authorities made the original recommendation), whereas those in the southwest of the country, for instance, often come in at 200 grams. Within some areas, weight differs from one bakery to another, all the while staying close to these numbers. (Whatever it weighs, one is not obligated to walk–per the image below–away with the whole stick under one’s arm: It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for une demi-baguette.)

PARIS/FRANCE and…the Five Food Groups

* By law, a baguette tradition must contain only flour, water, salt, yeast. Period. That said, once you leave the regulated confines of the strictly defined baguette tradition, a world of delightful, creative, delicious variations opens up to you–baguettes containing: poppy, sesame and other seeds and grains; garlic; cheese; dried fruit, etc. Le ciel (or the baker’s wildest imagination) is the limit.

* The patron saint of bakers has his own feast-day and his own pastry!

* While no one knows for sure when the baguette first appeared in France, there certainly is no shortage of theories, as plugging “history of the baguette” into Google will show (for readers with time on your hands, keep clicking onto subsequent pages at the bottom of each screen).

* Are you kept awake at night wondering how a sandwich differs from a tartine? This historically, culturally, linguistically, culinarily enlightening answer might just be your key to sweet (or…sour-dough) dreams.

* OK, OK, so now we know a ton of stuff about baguettes. Are there other kinds of French bread? ARE THERE OTHER KINDS OF FRENCH BREAD, you ask?! HAH! Scroll alllll the wayyyy dowwwwnnn  HERE!

(No one likes to be stereotyped, but the French themselves sometimes describe their compatriots as “little guys in berets with baguettes under their arms”!)


#5 Protein Foods

PROTEIN FOODS (otherwise known as: meat [preferably lean] and poultry, fish/seafood, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, soy products, legumes [no, not the French definition, i.e., “vegetable,” but the English one]) – One of the above 

* A poisson d’avril (April fish–and note that French capitalizes neither names of months, days, languages nor adjectives of nationality, geography, religion, political affiliation) = an April Fool’s prank. Here’s why—or, a couple among several theories as to why.

* Finally, for our readers who have been desperately seeking a recipe for a typical-French-bistro fish-dish with a leadenly heavy sauce, you have come to the right place

See you soon for the next instalment in our “Paris/France and…” series!

Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.

PARIS/FRANCE and…the Five Food Groups