La malbouffe

If there is a subject on which the French generally agree, it is the evils of ‘la malbouffe’. ‘Bouffe’ is slang for eating and the term ‘malbouffe’ has come to symbolize the poor eating habits of a fast-food generation.

Et oui – junk food is a problem even here in France, the land of good eats and gastronomic traditions. While most kids at school get a hot lunch, and families still sit down for a home-cooked dinner, the rise in the number of fast-food chains dominated by ‘le Mcdo’ is undeniable. What is worse, in my books, is the price wars through ‘promos’ in the supermarket chains.

France is served by a number of supermarket chains selling everything from diapers to donuts: Carrefour, Auchan, Leclerc, Intermarché, Casino and Super U. From the corner shop to the hypermarket, there is one of these shops in every French town.

You may have heard about the Nutella war that took place a few weeks ago when one store offered a kilo of the stuff at below cost. People flocked to get the deal, and scenes like this ensued:

Et oui! Hallucinant!

It is indeed telling. Not only that this kind of garbage (and I use the word intentionally for any food whose first ingredient is sugar) is consumed so massively, but that economic conditions are such that people would fight over it.

In this France is no different from anywhere else.

But France being France, there is a backlash. One of its mascots is Richard Ramos, a deputy fo the governing party from the department of Loiret in north-central France. Ramos came to fame this past weekend when, during an appearance on the  (excellent) political talk show, C’est Politique, he spread the ‘fake news’ of a so-called toxic preservative used in prepared foods. E330 or citric acid, as it turns out, is not toxic or even carcinogenic. It can cause the enamel of your teeth to erode.

His reputation took a hit but you can’t deny the wave on which he is riding. Ramos, and many others like him, want supermarkets to stop selling off crap like Nutella at cost and start paying a fair price to farmers. To draw attention to this cause, last October he drove a truck full of onions into a supermarket parking lot and dumped them – inviting shoppers to come and help themselves. The message was that the hard-working paysans who grow our food are not able to earn a living wage due to mass-consumerism and the greed of the supermarkets.

Add to the woes of these farmers the growing number of dairy and meat producers who can’t compete with cheaper EU imports and can barely make ends meet —  and you have the makings of a national tragedy.

One that will not be solved by cheap Nutella and a hamburger to go.

What do you think? How can we ensure that agricultural producers make a decent living from their labours? Boycott the big stores? Buy direct? Make greed illegal?

 

Tempête de neige

Five years ago this week, I first posted about the drama of snow that grinds France to a halt each year. I am happy to report that, in true French fashion, nothing much has changed.

It seems somehow appropriate that the anniversary of this blog is marked by another epic episode of snow in Paris and most of northern France. Once again, hundreds of people were stranded in their cars, trains were delayed or cancelled, and just about everything in Paris closed — including the Eiffel Tower.

This post from 2013 was inspired by a conversation with my late Belle-mère. Although she has been gone for awhile, she lives on in our hearts and, occasionally, here on this blog.

Restez au chaud mes amis!

FranceSays

Snow covers a Metro sign and tree branchesHow five centimeters of snow turn the fearless French into a bunch of sissies

My belle-mère (mother-in-law) called early one morning in January with the breaking news: “’Have you seen what’s happened in Paris?” she demanded. “No,” I replied, imagining a terrorist bomb or worse, a train strike.

“They’re completely snowed in. At least ten centimeters.” In France, snow in Paris is major national news. Next thing you know the army will be called in to rescue stranded commuters.

“Imagine,” I said. “Snow, in January.” This prompted a diatribe about how it was all very well for Nordic countries, but in France they’re not equipped for snow, at least not in the city.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Canada. As a citizen of the great white north, it takes more than a few flakes to keep me down. But after a few years in my adopted country I have…

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Les pieds dans l’eau

Le zouave is not happy. Not only are his feet getting wet, he’s up to his culotte in the Seine, whose levels have risen to dangerously high levels this week after torrential rains causing flooding in Paris and nearby communities.

‘Le zouave’ is the statue of a North African soldier, erected by Napoleon in 1856 in commemoration of the victory at the battle of the Alma in Crimea. It seems the zouave holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Parisians. Located at base of the Pont de l’Alma, this brave fellow acts as a warning: when water levels rise high enough that his feet get wet, it does not bode well.

The Alma bridge gets a lot of attention. It is near the famous tunnel where Princess Diana died in 1997. Here it is, along with some other famous Paris bridges, in drone images of the flooding.

And here’s a graphic that shows various dates and water levels of the zouave for the history buffs and technical types. (Of which I am neither. I like the story part. The rest flows in and out of my brain like the Seine.)

‘Crues’ means floods; ‘pics’ are peaks. Note that the bridge was reconstructed in 1974, placing the zouave 80 cm higher.

If all goes well, water levels should go start going down in a few days. Unless we get more rain, that is. And it’s pouring this morning.

Those who live in Villeneuve St. Georges and other suburbs near Paris have entire neighbourhoods underwater. Many have been evacuated and those who are sticking it out are braving it with no electricity.

It’s also a problem for les péniches, the iconic houseboats and restaurants along the Seine. I would have thought that during a flood a boat was the safest place to be but it seems that when the river is too high, they can break their moorings and end up crashing into a bridge. Like the Alma.

Attention, Monsieur le zouave!

Monsieur Paul

We were in Lyon last weekend when news came that Paul Bocuse had died.

It was somehow appropriate. Monsieur Paul, as he was affectionately known to all who knew him professionally, was not just the pope of French gastronomy but an icon of Lyon.

People would say ‘Bocuse’ the same way they would say ‘Versailles’ or ‘Deneuve’. Meaning the ultimate in fine food, glittering interiors or female beauty (although personally I could never see what all the fuss was about la grande Deneuve, even in her heyday.)

The grand chef was just another reason for us to move to Lyon. “It’s only a hour from the Alps,” or even “It’s France’s second largest city,” were nothing next to: “It’s the capital of French cuisine — Paul Bocuse has his famous restaurant there.”

Right. Like we would ever be able to afford to eat there.

Where we could afford to eat was in Lyon’s popular restaurants known as ‘bouchons’, where pots clattered and the staff were known for their efficient service and lively repartee.

Such memories we have of Café des Fédérations, which we frequented in every sense of the word. Like most of its fellow bouchons, literally holes in the wall, it didn’t look like much. Red-checkered napkins and hard wooden chairs, pigs on every wall and white-coated sausages hanging over the bar. But the ambiance! A steady stream of mostly faux but highly entertaining insults ran between the man behind the bar and his mouthy waitress. And the food! Simple and rich, in all the splendour of the Lyonnais tradition; that is, simple fare, served perfectly. Poule de Bresse, pig in every way possible, lentils and salads for greenery. Crème brulée for dessert. All washed downs with multiple ‘pots’ lyonnais. Wine by the pot, that’s for me!

And just what, you ask, does this have to do with the eminent Monsieur Paul? Everything, in fact. Bocuse trained with the renowned ‘Mères lyonnaises’, those women who took simple home cookery to the art form: La Mère Fillioux, la Mère Brazier and Mère Bourgeois. (Read here about Eugénie Brazier.)

And although he attained heights of fame and influence to which none of those women would have aspired despite their Michelin-starred status, he kept a love of simplicity in his cuisine that owes a lot to its origins in Lyon.

In my former life as a translator, I once adapted the texts for a CD-ROM about Paul Bocuse and his famous restaurant in the Monts d’Or, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonge.

It was back in the day when multimedia presentations were all the rage. I remember it had little icons of the chef in his tall toque as a graphic element throughout. It told the story of his humble beginnings and rise to the Legion of Honour. It was fun to translate and was one of the rare pieces I was actually proud to have worked on.

I still have never eaten chez Bocuse. Perhaps we’ll go one day, although I’m not a huge fan of la haute gastronomie. Life is full of surprises. Like that tattoo lurking on a famous chef’s shoulder.

Bon appétit, Monsieur Paul!

Pays de merde

Pity the humble translator whose increasingly challenging job it is to find the words for modern diplomatic language like ‘shithole countries’.

Having worked as a French-English translator in a former life, I can sympathize with those lost-in-translation moments. Often our job is not to literally replicate the words but to find terms that most people will understand to somehow capture the nuance of meaning. Not that the word ‘nuance’ can be readily associated with certain world leaders.

Translating Trump’s recent blunder, in which President Frog* used the unfortunate term to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries, the French media for the most part took the easy route with the already-coined phrase, pays de merde. An expression often used by the French themselves to describe France, it literally means ‘shit country’.

The proper meaning of ‘shithole’ was picked up by the excellent newspaper Courrier International as ‘trou à merde’. I learned all this from the Guardian, whose frankly hilarious piece details the translation challenges from around the world. Who knew there were countries where birds don’t lay eggs?

But nothing beats the Urban Dictionary, which has updated the definition of the term to its true meaning:

When my kids were little, they used to say: “C’est toi qui le dis, c’est toi qui l’es!”

I can’t think of a good equivalent in English but essentially: You said it, you’re it!

Out of the mouths of babes…

 

* Disclaimer: In carrying out in-depth research for this post, I discovered the Trump-frog chin meme; please note, however, that term ‘President Frog’ has nothing to do with France or the French. The author accepts no responsibility for any sensitive souls who have been offended by this post.