What you lose on tomatoes, you gain on the cheese

AS another French summer draws to its close, I am moved to make what the French call a bilan: an accounting, a balance sheet of the good and the bad.

I must begin with bad news about tomatoes. Summer guests have all remarked on how fundamental the tomato is to the rich flavours of the Mediterranean, but I wonder how long this can last. Consumption is steady, but prices this year have taken a terrible tumble. What costs 60p a kilo in Paris brings the grower between 15p and 30p. The reasons for this crash are many: superabundant production, too many producers too ill-organised to compete, over-importation in winter, and . . . yes, that old demon, the EC and its supranational markets and the demands of wholesalers.

As one market man put it: 'I pick up the telephone and by the next morning I have five truckloads of tomatoes all nicely wrapped up in paper. If I want tomatoes from the south (where, let it be said, they ripen properly and have flavour, which is something that can't be said for Jersey or Holland), I have to talk to a number of producers or shippers and I can't have any guarantee of their quality or when they will arrive.' What he means is: southern tomatoes do not conform to EC standards and the kind of tomatoes which, for want of others, we are accustomed to getting year-round.

'The long-life tomato,' says another trader, 'sells for more, because it handles more easily and causes less waste during distribution.'

The result? In Brittany, as in Morocco, growers turn to an inferior (in flavour) tomato. They cease to grow in fields; they grow in greenhouses, which increases the yield and frees tomato production from the vagaries of climate and season.

Alas] As someone who remembers when English tomatoes had a special, even unique flavour, I can see the day when we're all condemned to eat a travesty of the true thing.

Then there is the question of bread, another subject on which all visitors expatiate. It isn't that you can't get the proper, crisp, crusty French baguette any more, only that it is getting harder year by year.

Here the reason is social. Since there are so many rival bakeries, how many bakers want to start work at four to make bread for a few French breakfasts? Answer: fewer and fewer. The solution? The wholesale baker who delivers machine-made bread. While Madame argues vigorously that only in Paris can you get a proper loaf, the fact is that in many small towns and villages it's getting more difficult to get even a decent substitute.

I must also ask, when did the French croissant become so oily and heavy? This is a new development, and has to do with the introduction (strongly denied by the bakers) of vegetable fats and butter substitutes. Most croissants today weigh on the stomach like an undercooked bagel; they also coat your fingers with grease.

While I'm on the subject of baking, let me cast one more aspersion. There was a time when French tarts were a joy to the world. Unlike our own pies, they were full of the flavour of their fruit; and (not to make a pun of it) they were also tart and astringent rather than icky and sweet. Now the creme patissiere on which the fruits lie has been sweetened to resemble a Mars bar and one no longer eats a good tart save in a private home.

Of the good things, probably the best is the absolute freshness of the produce, always strictly seasonal and always local. As I have discovered during summer, however, this also has its down-side: a lack of variety. For weeks there is a glut of melons (they are currently five, and gorgeously ripe, for a quid); then there are none. Can man live on courgettes or eggplant alone? For three months I have not seen a leaf vegetable, except lettuces. Is there something to be said for the sempiternal, if tasteless, availability year-round that supermarkets provide?

A pleasant development notable in markets all around France is the growth of 'alternative' food suppliers - vaguely hippy, eco-freak types who purvey goat and sheep cheeses, honeys, sometimes bread, occasionally organically fed meat. But cheeses, of course, remain one of the boons of France, and to my practised eye, they seem to increase in quality and variety annually. Number one son ventured into the countryside during his stay and actually returned with five cheeses I had never eaten before, all good.

But I must close my accounting with another phenomenon much commented on by guests: the ubiquity of the cheap, plentiful, simple meal - the four-quid-with-wine nosh. From a motorway entrecote and frites to a cafe lunch, you can still eat adequately for the price, in London, of a Big Mac and fries. And let's not mention what you can do by rifling a charcuterie and picnicking under a tree by a somnolent canal with a nice bottle of 70p plonk dangling at the end of a string in the water.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all