What you lose on tomatoes, you gain on the cheese
Saturday 29 August 1992
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.
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