Tuesday, June 11, 2013

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Canned Foods in French Restaurants?! What Would Escoffier Say? Let's See...

A law should stipulate
that in a restaurant
food that has been cooked
on site with fresh ingredients
is served to customers.

Didier Chenet
President of French restaurant union, Synhorcat

Yesterday in the online edition of the German magazine Spiegel, Stefan Simons wrote that French restaurateurs are rankling under an onslaught of prepared meals and ingredients in places that serve food. With shorter lunch breaks, a greater emphasis on healthy eating, and a tighter economy, fast food joints and kitchen shortcuts are becoming increasingly common in the land known for boeuf Bourguignon and cassoulet. A slice of pizza for lunch might not at first blush seem "healthy," but compared to the traditional options at the long, drawn-out lunches of old, it's quicker, cheaper, and may have fewer calories.

What specifically upsets restaurateurs, though, is the crush of canned, bagged, bottled, and otherwise preserved or pre-made dishes and ingredients in so-called restaurants. Many argue that places that serve such food ought not be called "restaurants" at all. Simons writes:
A recent poll of culinary professionals in France by restaurant union Synhorcat found that 31 percent of French eateries are now often looking to the can for their culinary inspiration. Increasingly, this means salads out of bags, industrially produced French fries and potato wedges, canned vegetables, flavor concentrates, vacuum-packed fish as well as sauces and dressings out of the bucket. One-quarter of meals are no longer cooked -- they are simply stirred together or warmed up with nary a mention on the menu that what the customer is getting isn't fresh. As a result, half of customers no longer trust the restaurants that serve them.
Horrible. Simply horrible. Sauces from buckets! Canned produce! Such degradation of French cuisine. Can you imagine what the sainted Auguste Escoffier — the king of chefs and the chef of kings — would say if he weren't so busy turning in his grave? What sputtered indignation could he offer us?

We don't have to imagine. Escoffier actually wrote about such things. From Auguste Escoffier: Memories of My Life:
Since I created Pêche Melba, which now enjoys world wide renown, demand for tender peaches, both fresh and preserved whole, has increased considerably. To ensure the high quality of such peaches, the fruit must not be too fragile. Montreuil peaches were excellent, but in recent years that quality of peach became difficult to find. I noticed that in the Rhone valley there grew a peach that was very similar to the Montreuil peach. I tested it and was very happy with the results. The next year, in 1911, 15,000 of these peaches were canned. The year after, 30,000 peaches were canned, and the third year the figure had reached 60,000. The producer was planning to can 100,000 of these peaches when the war broke out. This kind of incontestable success would never had [sic] existed without the creation of Pêche Melba.
Escoffier did not merely tolerate canned and bottled goods cooked off-site, he embraced them. He encouraged producers to bottle, can, and ship overseas produce and sauces. He even later owned a company to manufacture canned and bottled goods. Although the codifier of haute French cuisine developed an improved tomato purée around 1874 (when the custom among cooks was to pour the purée in Champagne bottles and sterilize them), he could not convince a manufacturer to can the product until about 1892, when he took the entire 2,000 can run for his kitchens at the Savoy. The year after that, the manufacturer canned 60,000 kilos of crushed tomatoes. Today, some of the best restaurants in the world use canned tomato products.

From truffles to tomatoes, Escoffier knew that seasonality and adverse local growing conditions could make certain foodstuffs occasionally unavailable. Granted, he maintained high standards, but there was — and remains — no reason that high-quality preserved foods shouldn't be in anyone's kitchen larder. Do you truly want to mill your own grains, make your own pasta, pickle your own capers, grown your own cotton, stitch every bit of your clothing, build your own bike, forge your own knives — and create by your own hands every single thing you want to eat, drink, wear, or use every single day? There comes a point when we must rely on others who do good work so that we can get on with doing our own good work.

So, yeah. Despite some pretty schlocky examples on the market, canned, bottled, and jarred products don't bother me in and of themselves. I know how to make whiskey and homemade butter couldn't be easier, but frankly, it's a lot more expedient to buy those things from others who know what they're doing.

I sympathize with their frustrations, but clinging to notions of authenticity centered on fresh ingredients cooked in-house is going to be a slippery prospect for France's restaurateurs.

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