I love the fact that the French are completely committed to the very best of everything. I find their dedication to quality both fascinating and inspirational. As a result, I continually try to upgrade the quality of every area of my own life.
With those words as background, I’m sure you’ll understand why I was so interested in this latest, entertaining piece from Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.
Sherry’s partner immigrated from France to Canada over 20 years ago and together they have a Franco-Anglo toddler that Save. Spend. Splurge readers know as Baby Bun.
Sherry kindly offered to share her perspective on all things French after Distant Francophile readers let me know that they’d like more insights into French culture. Safe to say that I’m very grateful. You can check out two of Sherry’s earlier posts here and here.
I will hand things over to Sherry now as we look at one specific area of French life where quality is very, very important.
And until next time – au revoir.
The French Dedication To Quality
“There’s something wrong with the chicken!”, my partner exclaims, after taking a bite.
I hastily put down my fork and try to wrestle the first bite of chicken out of Baby Bun’s mouth which I can assure you is no small feat (think: baby lion starved after 2 weeks of fasting and happens upon a freshly prepared wildebeest, sautéed to perfection in organic butter).
“No, no, it isn’t dangerous”, he said watching me breathe a sigh of relief and extricating my now bloodied fingers from Baby Bun’s sharp little white teeth, “it is just … the chicken is dry, the meat is not the same quality as before!!”
I silently take a bite and wonder if he just overcooked it and wants to just blame the poor chicken who can’t defend itself right now about the way it was raised and how it lived its life.
“Yeah, I guess it is a little dry…”, I say after a little chewing.
“Not just a little! I know I cooked this chicken PERFECTLY and with good butter”, he insists, “and this is the result I get? It is dry like crazy, and the meat is not sticking to the bone like before. I don’t know what they did but this is NOT CHICKEN.”
“Well. It is chicken, just not GOOD chicken.”, I say. “It’s not as bad as mass market…”, I offer meekly.
“Not bad!? That is not what I paid for! It is supposed to be organic and decent chicken. Of course, it is nothing like that nice poulet de Bresse (blue foot chicken) I used to eat, but it was acceptable. You know what, I’m going to just stop buying chicken. You just can’t even find good meat these days! What is this country coming to?”, he harrumphed.
“Bébé” (Baby), he cautions Baby Bun with a finger, “on n’envie pas manger la bouffe qui n’est pas bon, oui?” (We don’t desire to eat food that isn’t good, yes?)
Our son just stares at him blankly like he’s crazy and shovels another spoonful into his mouth.
Let me stop here and explain something I found very interesting: French people take the quality of things seriously, and nothing more so than food, and some are almost always willing to completely change their eating habits completely to stick to those principles.
Case in point: We are already mostly vegetarian, if not vegan for a good chunk of the week because he has deemed beef to be full of hormones and tasteless here, the pork is also equally abominable and the only meat left was chicken, aside from gamier or less conventional meats like goat, horse, etc.
(We eat like carnivores when we go back to France, FYI, and just fill up on our meat intake for the year.)
The strangest thing of all, is I have realised he is not an anomaly nor overreacting in his declaration that he’d rather go vegetarian or avoid eating chicken at least until we find a good substitute.
(In this case, it has been venison. Gamier, wild meat has a lot of flavour and we found some venison that fits the bill.)
A few summers earlier, I met cousins of his in Paris who said nonchalantly that they only eat meat once a month. When I nudged my partner to ask them why in French (I was still strictly Anglophone at the time) thinking maybe we could learn about how to eat more vegetarian, they said it was because they couldn’t afford “good meat” every week so they just stopped eating it so often. They would rather be vegetarian most of the month than eat lower quality meat more often.
That sort of blew me away. I grew up (and am still used to) the idea of eating meat weekly, although I have found the quantities to have decreased in recent years due to our move towards more plant-based foods, but could never imagine refusing to eat meat unless it was the best they could buy.
I even read an anecdotal (I think) story about how when a homeless French woman who had fallen on hard times was asked by a reporter why she wasn’t going to the local French food bank, she said: “because they don’t serve good beef.”
(I daresay what she considers bad beef must be what I ate as ‘good beef’ on a regular basis growing up!)
It is not to say that all French people are like this, we know plenty who aren’t, or that we are such food snobs that we would rather starve to death like a homeless woman than eat (come on now, no one is that much of a martyr), but it is more that the French are much more willing to find alternate means of sustenance if what they’re offered is not of the quality they expect and want.
They’d rather eat vegetables and beans instead if those sources of food are good and tasty, than to try to eat what isn’t tasty just for the sake of habits.
It is both admirable, and for my stomach in particular, frustrating beyond belief because I was not raised like that. I was raised on junk and even though I’ve transformed my eating habits remarkably from who I was as a youngster (think soda for breakfast and don’t even let me see a vegetable cross my plate), I am not sure I’m ever going to be that strong in my food beliefs.
I’m probably the equivalent of a marshmallow cream puff when it comes to sticking to food convictions which is why dieting has never been a thing I’ve ever practiced.
In contrast my partner has an iron will for food and will actually starve about a day or two (I have seen this happen on trips) rather than eat bad food, saying he won’t die and he wants to wait to see if he can find decent fare. If offered a TV dinner or an edible tree stump, he would take the stump and dig in with a white bib, fork and knife, while I’d be diving for that TV dinner with my hands like a deranged animal before you could even ask the question.
This is definitely one piece of French food education that I have found to be very different, and something to learn from.
16 thoughts on “The French Dedication To Quality”
This is a wonderful post. Yes, people do tend to hold out for quality over quantity. I see people at the village butcher buying a few slices of ham, or a small steak. It’s top quality and expensive, but better a little piece than something cheaper but of dubious provenance. Same thing at the market–the stalls of local farmers are besieged even though their prices are as much as double the stalls selling produce from Spain and Morocco.
OTOH, eating less quantity and more quality is a good way to diet. The New York Times had an article today about France banning free soda refills because of the rise in obesity to 15.3% (below the EU average of 15.9% and compare it to a U.S. average of 36.5%). The French don’t consume many soft drinks to begin with, and food portions are almost universally far smaller than in the U.S. (how is it in Australia? I’d love to go there one day!)
That’s exactly it — a small steak, a little meat of higher quality rather than quantity. It’s how I want to approach everything in life..
And those of us in Australia would love for you to visit one day Catherine!! Please let me know whenever you are thinking of coming to Melbourne.
In terms of our food intake, unfortunately our culture tends to have followed the US when it comes to size of our food portions. Our obesity and Type 2 diabetes rates reflect this. Having said that, there is a (slowly) growing section of the community that focus more on quality. As a result we are seeing the increased availability of organic food and farmers markets springing up everywhere. And, as in France, consumers seem happy to spend more for quality. I just wish there was more of it!
In my experience, the French of every socio-economic class take tremendous pleasure in eating well. I went to live in France as an au pair when I was 19, and it was very hard in the beginning to sit down at our table to a platter that had four portions, and those portions looked very small to me. It was not a financial thing – the household had a maid/cook, we lived in the 6th and lived quite well – but a portion was a specific size and everyone understood that. Regardless, I felt that I was starving to death. In short order I learned – the most important thing – that the smaller portions were in fact quite satisfying, because very flavorful. My brain felt satiated and so my stomach did not clamor for more.
A perfect example: when my son was with me some years ago in Paris, we went to the market for strawberries. There were two types: one from Spain, and one from the south of France. Both looked ripe and delicious, but the French berries cost almost 5 times as much. I asked the vendor what was the difference, were the French ones so much better? He assured me that they were, and I requested a kilo for my son and me. The vendor was astounded – he asked me how many more people were at home. When I replied that it was only my son and me (my son was a large teen) he said that a kilo was far too much, he recommended only 250 grams (about 1/2 pound). My son assured me that he could easily eat that much alone, so we compromised and bought a half kilo for the two of us, about a pound. Long story short, my son was able to eat all of 5 strawberries before he declared himself utterly satisfied and unable to eat another berry. The intensity of the flavor was almost overwhelming; I don’t think I managed to eat more than three. My brain was full and on sensory overload.
Here in the US, our food is so much less flavorful – think pale hothouse tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, tasteless low fat everything – so we eat more and more to fill our brains, even though the stomach is full. I think that we must be programmed to seek something to eat until our taste buds and not just our stomachs tell our brains that we are satisfied. That would explain a lot.
Less flavour is the culprit. We have the exact same reactions when we go back to France. We eat the berries, we try the meat, we try the milk (oh that MILK!!) and realize just how bland, tasteless and sad our food is here most of the year. It is a known fact that producers in North America do not breed for flavour, they breed for looks, uniformity & ease of transportation, which basically means watery tomatoes that look like a tomato but smell and taste NOTHING like one.
There have only been a few times where I have been impressed. One time, was the beef in Texas (cannot beat it, quite amazing, where can I buy it here in Montreal, please?), and the second was being able to find French-produced fare in NYC (Whole Foods and other fancier stores), and in Montreal, particularly a certain bottle of olive oil made in France that costs about $30 here.
Scotty and I are headed to the US for our very first time later this year Sherry – I’ll keep an eye out for Texan beef!
Please do. Texan beef even purchased at Wal-mart is DELICIOUS. My goodness, I have never eaten better. My partner agreed it was very very good.
Thank you so much for sharing your perspective Alisa. And I think you have provided a couple of very telling lessons in your comment. The quality of the food,even in the dodgiest of stores, is just one – but an extremely important – reason that I love France so much.
I have a fellow Francophile friend who talks about “respecting the food.” I first heard her use the phrase in a discussion of food preparation and the concept of mise en place. I think another connection is quality vs quantity. A French woman is not going to have 20 pairs of shoes, she will have 10 (a pair of boots for winter, sneakers, evening pumps . . . you get the picture), but all will be of the highest quality she can afford. I am a fundraiser for a major research university. In my business when we have a fundraising event and we evaluate the guests who attend, we say, “It’s not the how many, it’s the who.”
Thanks so much for your comment Kristine. You are so right – quality over quantity wins every time.
Oh I love that idea. 🙂
Oh yes! I relate to this. I have a half-French husband who refuses to buy bread, unless it compares (almost) as well as that in France. Other things too. He prefers to cook because he can ‘get it right'(!) I thought he was just a fussy eater until I accompanied him to France and realised it was in the genes!
Yep Jan, it is part of what makes travelling to France so special!
It’s in the blood, I tell you.
Mine also prefers to cook everything because he turns his nose up at restaurants thinking:
A) They can’t cook as well as I can
B) If they could, they wouldn’t use the best ingredients to do so
C) If they could do A and B, they would charge me an arm and a leg for a little bit of food and I can do a bigger amount for less money
Can’t win 😉