We’ve all heard the claims about the Mediterranean diet. The fresh produce, the fish, olive oil and red wine are all strengthening our arteries, lowering our bad cholesterol and prolonging our lives, making residents of the South of France some of the world’s healthiest eaters.
Hold on a second, though. Didn’t the French drive two hours and wait in endless lines the day Burger King opened at the Marseille airport? The Riviera’s pilgrimage for a Whopper may have made the evening news but the country’s love for le fast-food is no breaking story.
McDonald’s is more popular in France than any other nation outside of the US. In 2013, total sales for the Golden Arches in France reached €4.46 billion, and while franchises worldwide experienced a decline in sales over the first half of this year, revenues in France grew 4.8%.
13 desserts at Christmas Photo: iamericat
In Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, author Mike Steinberger claims that France’s gastronomic empire is on the decline and cites testimony from powerhouses like Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse, who say that keeping the country’s culinary traditions alive is an uphill battle.
So where does the truth lie? Are the people who brought us Babette’s Feast and Proust’s madeleine destined to sink into la malbouffe or does their cuisine merit its “world intangible heritage” rating on UNESCO’s World Heritage List?
As is typical of this complicated culture, the truth is somewhere in-between. While it can’t be ignored that the average Frenchman may indulge in le Big Mac from time to time, the South of France still enjoys higher rates of longevity than elsewhere in Europe.
Small changes to culinary tradition are tolerated, such as the trendy salted caramel added to the classic bûche de Noël at Christmas dinner. Yet the South of France’s famed 13 desserts, representing Jesus and his 12 apostles, used to be set on the table on Christmas Eve and left for three days. Not many still follow this rule to the letter, but suggest skipping the obligatory courses of oysters, smoked salmon or foie gras, and the heels quickly dig in.
According to a survey of European embassies published in the Daily Mail, the French Christmas dinner is the healthiest in all of Europe with second place going to the Czech Republic, whose traditional holiday fare includes a cringe-worthy combination of fish soup, cold potato salad and sour cabbage. That would shrivel the holiday spirit of even the least discerning French palate.