Monday, July 09, 2007

Commitment

The truly abysmal, unseasonably cold weather has continued: rainy and windy – some days are genuinely March-like, with high temperatures hovering around a chilly 18°C (64°F). Nevertheless, the summer holidays, whether in Paris or in the provinces, are an ideal time to meander through the outdoor food markets, fill one's shopping bag, and cook at home.

Traditionally, French people who take their holidays during the summer months are divided into two waves: the juilletistes, who take the entire month of July (and not just a portion of it), and the aoûtiens, who – quite logically – take off all the month of August. The end of July is most definitely not a time to be on the roads or in the train stations and airports, with literally millions upon millions of people on the move. This is when the rested homecoming juilletistes meet the impatiently departing aoûtiens; the French have called it the grand chassé-croisé de l'été. In the past several years, with the advent of the five-week paid vacation for all, many French people – especially families - have been taking the month between July 14th (Bastille Day) and August 15th (Assumption). The days of the dyed-in-the-wool, purist juilletistes and aoûtiens appear to be definitely numbered; seasonal vacation rentals by the week are becoming more and more frequent, as opposed to the more traditional monthly house and apartment rentals, for example. There doesn't seem to be a nickname yet for this new breed of vacationer.


The annual kickoff to the summer holidays, even though school is still is session, is the Feast of Saint John, on June 24th. Known colloquially as Saint-Jean and Saint-Jean d'Eté (Saint John of the Summer as opposed to Saint John of the Winter: Saint-Jean d'Hiver, i.e., Saint John the Apostle on December 27th), it is traditionally celebrated as the birthday of Saint John the Baptist. (French-Canadians also have a special place for Saint John.) In many French villages, large bonfires are laid in a field during the week preceding Saint-Jean and on the evening of Saint Jean d'Eté, they are lit as the watching people, especially the children, applaud, oohh and aahh. When the ashes and charcoal remains have cooled, members of the crowd collect bits of the charred faggots and take them home - they are thought to bring good luck to hearth and household during the coming year.

Amerloque has appreciated the marvelous, ever-changing experience of strolling through the food markets for many years. In the summer there is far more time to do so, even if the weather is bad. Produce stall after produce stall overflows with luscious fruits and vegetables; farmers sell their production directly to marketgoers. Various middlemen, who have themselves stocked up at a wholesale market, do the same in similar stalls alongside. There is a government-established network (marché d'intérêt national) of such wholesale markets: in the Paris region the one at Rungis, which replaced Les Halles in the center of Paris, is the most famous, of course.

M and Mme Amerloque make a point of purchasing directly from the French farmer/grower as much as they can all year round, for two major reasons.

The first is simply to support French farmers and growers, and more particularly the small local ones. Crushed by insane European Union regulations designed to "help" them and by greedy hypermarket distributors, French farmers and farmworkers are disappearing at an alarming rate. From something like 3.8 million in 1970, their number had dropped to 1.1 million by the year 2005. Farms are vanishing, too: in 2000 there remained but 664,000 of the million counted in 1988. Overall, the population has risen, naturally: there are now about 63 million people in France, many of whom are perfectly happy to trundle weekly down to their local megastore and mechanically load up on imported industrially-produced fruits and vegetables, at prices subsidized by the intellectually dishonest European Union. Usually the cheap tomatoes, artichokes, melons and nectarines one sees are imported from Spain. It is not unusual at all for one to find oranges from Morocco, Chile and South Africa, avocados and oranges from Israel, and apples from New Zealand.

The French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) reports that in 2003 the French spent 17.4% of their disposable income on food, a figure substantially down from the 31.5% in 1960. According to one of the main farmers' professional organizations, over the past 40 years the amount spent by French people on fruits and vegetables produced in France has dropped by almost 30%. Given these figures, one does not have to be a whiz at math to visualize what the future holds for the small farmer - unless he and she are supported by both the government and the consumer.


The second reason that the Amerloque family always purchases from the farmer/grower is the quality. The principal reason that Amerloque has chosen to live in France is the quality of life, which for the vast majority of French citizens and residents is far, far better than that offered in the USA at equal levels of income - at least to Amerloque's way of thinking. In the case of fruits and vegetables, it's an open and shut case. There is no comparison – at least in his mind and tastebuds ! – between the industrial fruits and veggies available in the hypermarkets and those that the farmers/growers lovingly offer for sale, from their own well-tended farms. Certainly the latter cost a bit more, and are sometimes not as beautifully attractive and shiny and squeaky-clean as their industrial counterparts, but the bottom line is that they taste better. Nor are they waterlogged, or dyed, or covered in insecticides and preservatives, or underripe, or overripe, as are so many fruits and vegetables in the hypermarkets.

It should be noted that Amerloque is not necessarily speaking of bio products - what in the USA are called organic foodstuffs. He is simply speaking of the normal agricultural produce in France produced by small farmers and growers, who may or may not be bio.

Last year, from August to December, M and Mme Amerloque belonged to an Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne, an AMAP. In the USA, the movement is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A CSA organization is a contractual partnership of mutual commitment between an individual farm or grower and a stable community of supporters. The paid-up members of a CSA/AMAP community cover a portion of a country farm's annual or semi-annual operating budget by purchasing shares of the season's harvest in advance. In return for this financing, the farm provides a healthy supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season. The CSA/AMAP group members receive a weekly or monthly basket of produce, flowers, fruits, eggs, milk, cheese, or even a selection of different farm products.

During the first two weeks of their membership in the AMAP specialized in fruit-and-veg (an Association 1901), M and Mme Amerloque received two different baskets containing strawberries, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, early squash, shallots, various heads of lettuce and chou chinois, a variety of cabbage. All of them were very high quality; some were even 100% "bio"; the cost per kilo was about the same as at a stall in a top-flight Parisian open-air market. Alas, from the fourth week, both the quality and quantity started declining somewhat precipitously. Since M and Mme Amerloque were primarily interested in quality, they decided to pull out of the AMAP, which by that time had turned into a real Parisian "bobo show", with more a m'as-tu vu ? ambiance than an honest effort to obtain tasty fruits and vegs.


Earlier this year, after taking the time to visit quite a few places and carefully sample the produce, exactly as one would taste wines before purchasing, M and Mme Amerloque worked out an arrangement with a maraicher bio (organic market gardener) just outside town, to the west of Paris, who brings in his paniers bio to a distribution point once a week. Since the beginning of his season in April, the maraicher has supplied tomatoes (beefsteak, plum, cherry), lettuce, green asparagus, carrots, cucumbers (Noa), radishes, onions (new, scallions), artichokes, Zucchini (long, round), eggplant, beets (cooked and uncooked), potatoes (new, Anais, Fuji ) strawberries, raspberries, melons (cantaloupe), and rhubarb. The farmers also make their own juices: apple, pear, and apple/raspberry.


Here are two typical weekly baskets.

- un kilo de courgettes rondes
- une aubergine
- 900g de tomates
- une botte de carottes nouvelles
- une botte de radis
- deux barquettes de framboises
- un concombre
- deux artichauts

and

- un kilo de courgettes vertes
- une aubergine
- un kilo de tomates olivette
- une botte de carottes nouvelles
- une botte de radis
- deux barquettes de framboises
- une botte d'oignons
- une bettrave rouge cuite
- un melon
-------------------------------------------------------------

The taste of each and every vegetable and fruit is out of this world and bears little relationship to the imported Spanish, Dutch and Moroccan stuff in the hypermarkets. Each basket is €15, by subscription. That might sound a bit high, especially when compared to hypermarket prices, but M and Mme Amerloque are in Paris, which is in the Ile de France, after all. The quantities are decent (well-filled barquettes of raspberries, for example) and the produce fresh: picked that very morning or, at worst, on the previous day. What more could one ask ?


When writing about Les Halles many, many years ago, Waverly Root, who discoursed so admirably and lovingly about French and Italian foods, stated:

... in the 1920s most of the vehicles were horse-drawn farm carts, driven by the same men who had raised the produce and picked it that very morning before daylight so that Paris could have fresh food from the market gardens that encircled it - white beans from Noyon, asparagus from Argenteuil, peas from Clamart, string beans from Bagnolet, cauliflowers from Arpajon, carrots from Crécy. The fields where they grew are buried now under the dormitory suburbs of Paris.

Root was right. Yet there are still maraichers to be found around Paris, not too far away at all, if one looks hard enough: women and men and their families who have made a commitment toward quality and not quantity, toward authentic, tasteful tradition and not ersatz, tasteless modernity.

They merit the support and commitment of those who care about such things and who are unwilling to be brainwashed into believing in the supposed virtues of industrialized food consumerism.



L'Amerloque



Text © Copyright 2007 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyrights reserved to copyright holders including Amerloque

8 Comments:

Blogger LASunsett said...

Hi Amerloque,

Mrs. Sunsett and myself enjoy doing the same thing here in the Midwest. The locals have many fresh vegetable stands, here in the outer suburbs. For the most part, the quality of the produce is much better than in the supermarkets.

Just this past weekend, the first wave of sweet corn came in and as you may guess, we had to have some. We do not buy corn on the cob from the supermarkets any more. It just isn't good enough.

I have often wondered what makes people think that Florida's soil is conducive to growing good corn. That's where our fresh corn comes from in the winter. I guess it beats nothing, but I won't buy it.

Citrus fruits and other things from there are great, but the soil is not the same as it is here. Therefore, the taste, texture, and overall quality does not compare with Indiana corn.

So, from now until it runs out, we will be getting our share. Strawberries are almost completely out of season here. But tomatoes, corn, green beans, and others are doing okay despite the lower than usual rainfall.

The other thing I worry about here and that I envy about you being in Europe is, the use of pesticides. I am sure Europe is pretty much pesticide free, no?

2:40 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello LASunsett !


Thanks for stopping by ! LASunsett is welcome anytime !


Just this past weekend, the first wave of sweet corn came in and as you may guess, we had to have some. We do not buy corn on the cob from the supermarkets any more. It just isn't good enough.


Ahh ! American sweet corn ! Nothing better at an outdoor barbecue ! Mmmm !


Corn is not a part of traditional French foods and is considered to be fit for animals but not for humans. Each country has its "no-no" foods: insofar as America is concerned, frogs' legs and snails come immediately to mind. (grin)


One sees a bit more corn nowadays in France in exotic dishes, such as Mexican or South American ones. Nevertheless, corn is still not served at the usual French table: the guests will think the host and hostess are crazy, and might even take it as a mortal insult !
Amerloque learned this the (very) hard way many, many years ago. (grin)


Nowadays Mme Amerloque makes cornbread from scratch for Thanksgiving. It's quite a project, just to find decent fresh sweet corn. As a matter of fact, last year she couldn't find any, and was forced to use corn from a can …


… Florida's soil is conducive to growing good corn …/… the soil is not the same as it is here …/… the taste, texture, and overall quality does not compare with Indiana corn.


Yes, this is the notion of terroir, which is as important to foods as it is to wines. (grin)


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terroir


Tomatoes grown in Italy just don't seem to be the same as tomatoes grown in France, either. (grin)


The other thing I worry about here and that I envy about you being in Europe is, the use of pesticides. I am sure Europe is pretty much pesticide free, no?


To a certain extent, yes: it of course depends on the country. The newer EU countries are having trouble phasing out the use of prohibited pesticides. There are certainly fewer pesticides overall, and the use is less, but a reliance on industrial agriculture (and make no mistake, there is quite a bit of industrial agriculture in France: it's one of the world's top exporters of food …) has ensured that pesticides are still used, albeit in smaller quantities than in USA.


There are also "nitrates", i.e., fertilizers, which have leached into the soil and waterways in many parts of Europe, especially in the French region known as Brittany.


Best,
L'Amerloque

3:06 AM  
Blogger expat said...

Here in California, too, it is perfectly possible to buy all one's fruit and veg from farmer's markets. The quality is excellent. The quality trend is also upward in the bricks-and-mortar stores, although at a price. At the moment, Whole Foods and Henry's compete for the high-quality shoppers. Rumour is that one of them may eat the other, and the competition will evaporate.

8:10 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi expat !

Thanks for stopping by !

It's reassuring to see that both in the USA and France consumers are seeking alternatives to the super- and hypermarkets and their foods. (smile)

Best,
L'Amerloque

1:39 AM  
Blogger LASunsett said...

Hi Amerloque,

The second batch of sweet corn is in and more mature than the first. Green beans are looking good too.

Friends are in from New Joisey this weekend. I'll know more about how they taste after tomorrow night's meal.

3:54 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello LASunsett !

Hopefully the second batch of corn was better ?! (wide grin)

Here the big news is mildew in the vineyards ... looks like a major portion of the grape harvest might be lost ...

Best,
L'Amerloque

1:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice blog!
I'd like to give you my compliments for your blog, I'm the webmaster of an Italian Paris Site: Parigi Viaggi
Could be very nice if I could find an interesting person like you to make a blog in my site....sigh...In Italy..

7:09 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Anonymous !

Amerloque extends his thanks for stopping by ... Viva L'Italia ! (smile)

Best,
L'Amerloque

11:55 PM  

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