I’ll start with a due disclaimer: just a week in France, and only in Paris at that, must give a limited perspective on eating in the country. This is especially as everyone’s experience is defined by their choices, pocketbook, and parts of the city they saw.
Still, dans ce cadre, my impressions: when I first visited the city some 20 and 30 years ago, the central arrondissements had a large number of charcuteries, boucheries, cheese-vendors, and bakers. Their number seems far less now. Correspondingly, there are many more Franprix and other supermarkets, and frozen food shops.
Similar items are still sold but meat and cheese is packaged in foil or plastic wrap of some kind. In a word, the industrial food system now dominates over the older, artisan and shop-based one.
I am not saying none of the older-style shops exist, and probably there are more of them outside the city and in smaller towns. But I saw very few on a number of rambles through various parts of the Left and Right Banks.
A generation ago, you saw large piles of rillettes, the white/pink/scarlet/red-coloured pork spread described in Ninette Lyon’s 1985 Le Tour De France Gourmand Des Spécialités Regionales. The exact hue depended on the cooking time, she said. You saw the large Paris baguettes, 700 gr. as she describes, with a white and pliable crumb. Today, the baguettes seem smaller and saltier too than I remember. I didn’t see a single large pile of rillettes anywhere, or one shop indeed where the meats were hanging from rafters or piled on the counter unwrapped.
We had a number of different breads at our hotel each morning, part of the generous breakfast included with the room price. Good to eat certainly but generally the crumb was darker than I recall, perhaps reflecting more whole grain usage. The croissants and pains chocolat were similar though to past decades.
The flavour of the famous Auvergne ham, a Paris staple, seemed as good as ever despite the presumed change in packaging. Quality too depended of course where you ate it. The best I had was at a brasserie near boul. St. Germain, it was served sandwich-style, cut into small squares to facilitate eating with a drink.
These changes reflect of course the march of time. The kind of daily shopping the old economy permitted, when most mothers did not work, has disappeared with the much greater number of women in the work force and improvements in the day care system.
Food is still taken seriously of course, and overall quality is high as compared to North America, but changes there have been. One area that impressed much was cheeses. Our hotel provided a changing variety each morning and the taste was strong and pungent for the most part, reflecting limited or no pasteurization.
As to restaurants, we ate in bistros, brasseries and ethnic restaurants, so I can’t speak to the more traditional “cuisine” places often benefiting from a Michelin star or more. This part of the culinary scene is very active still and since menus must be posted by law, I was able to read many of them including from the Relais and Chateau down the street from our hotel. The Escoffier-based cuisine which was a Right Bank staple many years ago, only partly challenged by the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s, seems largely replaced by a more diverse scene.
The old dishes are sometimes still available, but lighter cuisine and often the chef’s personal interpretation seem more the order of the day. One place featured the “molecular” cuisine, a fad in recent years. Some of the high-end places reflected the fusion trend which has been an enduring part of the culinary scene internationally. One good bistro we went to had dishes where Thai or other Asian influences were evident.
There are many more Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants than before, of excellent quality to be sure. The French, today, like international variety in their eating at least in Paris but Paris is a bellwether: il n’est bon bec que de Paris is an old adage. Bagels are a fad today, there are shops on almost every corner although the famous Jewish bread form looked rather pallid to me.
The one real disappointment was the reduction in classic bonne femme and provincial dishes that were the standby of every bistro and middle-class restaurant. Dishes like lentils from Puy with salt pork, roasted chicken, smoked herring and potatoes, sliced tongue, various fish preparations from the North sea (fish supplies are reduced, I saw pollack offered once!), onion soup, earthy andouillettes, etc. Only the steaks beloved of France are still available everywhere, the bavettes and rib steaks with the familiar pepper or butter or herb sauce and French fries on the side.
Vegetarian dishes and especially burgers have progressed in proportion. Burgers are hot in Paris. Almost every brasserie offers six or seven types. They looked good but it seemed odd to order one in France so I didn’t. Of course too all the major chains are there, McDonald’s, Quick (French-owned I believe), KFC, Burger King now, and more.
The old dishes certainly exist, I saw them here and there, but you have to search them out more. Food in restaurants on average is still of high quality, paralleling the general high quality of ingredients. A veal tournedos in port wine sauce stood out for me, and dish of lieu (colley, a cod-type fish) with chopped fresh cabbage. There was a faultless choucroute Alsacienne, the sauerkraut and meats dish of Alsace, and a fine tajine with lamb in a local market.
I should add that the old “zinc” or bistro which specialized in (generally) Beaujolais wines, reduced in number even 30 years ago, has almost disappeared. La Tartine on Rivoli street still carries the flag, and one or two others. The zinc bars still exist, physically that is with their curious warmth, repurposed for other uses. No wine is bottled any longer in the bistrot’s basement from barrels shipped by winery or wholesaler, at least that is what I was told. It used to be put in bottles without a label and you paid only for what you drank.
In general food “looks” more American than it used to. In part, our own food looks more foreign than it used to, or different anyway. Probably the twain are meeting somewhere on the way, as the languages will over time.