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Say “Celà n’est sûre[-gelée-]ment pas le cas”

Following on reports this spring that Polish (and probably other-sourced) horsemeat made it through France and into British frozen supermarket lasagne, now we get word of even more devious (and frankly depressing) culinary misdeeds in today’s Washington Post online:

French restaurants acknowledge serving factory-frozen food

A surprising number of cafés are apparently serving up microwaved meals instead of cooking them in-house. Even the éclair, which doesn’t take a lot of time to cobble together, even for an amateur like me, is no longer safe. The profit margin is too high on these items, and the savings in cooking staff are phenomenal. In a down market, what else would you expect?

But it’s a big embarrassment for a country that’s traded primarily on its gastronomic leadership for decades since WWII. No, WWI. No, wait–probably since the Napoleonic era. Or before the Revolution. Cyrano de Bergerac does a soliloquy based on cream horns and other such items, if I recall.

Well, to tell you the truth, though, I’m not sure whether I’m shocked or relieved. Judging from what my family and I were able to eat in 2006 in Paris, I’d say that in a few cases (cafés within walking distance of museum exits, chosen in part for meltdown-avoidance) frozen might even be a step up from one or two of the overpriced restaurant meals we had (a horrid, horrid “salade niçoise” featuring canned green beans comes to mind). Those few meals were, and I can be generous when I have to, mediocre in a way that would be excusable in suburban America on travel but which were much less than okay given that it was Paris.

Mostly we ate food that wasn’t (comparatively, anyhow) too expensive (we skipped the meat dishes, since we keep kosher) and couldn’t be frozen well enough to fool customers who know how to cook. So omelets cooked where we could see them, felafel served with freshly chopped red cabbage, open-faced sandwiches, breads from a bakery that smelled like yeast and flour, not like plastic bags, and so on. The frozen items tended to be ice cream, which is supposed to be frozen. But that was a year or so before the big bank crashes, the collapse of the housing bubble in America and “too big to fail” and even the Madoff scandal. And even then things weren’t quite as glam, at the moderate end, as we’d been primed for.

And on the other other hand, what does it mean that so many French restaurants have resorted to this kind of tactic, microwaving (and charging for) tuna steaks with ratatouille accompaniment, as in the article? What, other than money of course, and the effects of a deep recession that’s hit France pretty hard this past year.

What it means, in part, is that (also according to the article) flash-freezing techniques are now at a point, at least in France, where they can keep the food acceptable in quality and that the suburban factories where these dishes are put together and frozen are doing a pretty fair job, fair enough to fool even moderately experienced diners (not just tourists). And that the “restaurants”–who knows if they’ll get to keep that title now that they’ve been exposed–have figured out how to be at least marginally competent at microwaving so they don’t just ruin the food.

Better if they were cooking fresh. Or, from the perspective of an avid microwaver, better if they were using their microwaves for something more sophisticated than defrost-and-warm. Better, since so many of the younger working French no longer cook for themselves very much, if the restaurants, cafés and bistros took their role as gastronomic role-model and rallying point a little more to heart. Certainly they shouldn’t be pretending to cook from scratch and charging commensurate prices.

But I wonder–is the food they’re serving significantly better in quality than America’s mass-produced frozen meals-for-one? It might just be, since it’s a more recently introduced phenomenon in France, and it’s been designed to pass muster as though it were cooked fresh. For such a fraud to be successful, the flash-frozen food cannot be like American tv dinners. It just can’t. It might be that many of these factory-produced dishes are still a lot less processed than the miseries perpetrated by Swanson, Kraft, Stouffer’s and so on over here. So maybe we need to take another look at their techniques and demand better quality in the frozen food section here, foods that don’t have aroma of oversalted wet cardboard clinging to them once thawed.

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