Sometimes the soul of a great nation can be won or lost on a technicality.
Should French wine - quality French wine, with the official labels to prove it - be artificially flavoured with bundles of oak shavings or chippings? Could the French wine industry's near-mystical belief in "terroir" - the conviction that quality grows mostly from the soil, not the trickery of the winemaker - survive the introduction of such an outlandish "New World" practice?
The issue is more important than the future of French wine alone, important though that issue is to many thousands of people (and not just in France). The debate about how French wine should adapt to a menacing, new global market and global taste for wine goes to the heart of French identity. More than that, it goes to the heart of the debate about globalisation and national character, about excellence and dumbing down.
Little reported, even in the French national press, the agency which polices quality wines in France - the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) - recently reaffirmed its ban on the use of copeaux, or bundles of oak chippings, to give wine a tangier, woodier flavour. This dodge is widely used in Australia and the United States. Until recently, it was banned in the European Union, except for table wines.
To help European wine producers cope with a rising torrent of New World opposition, Brussels decided this year to allow chippings with everything. The INAO has now rejected that advice - or not quite.
After a bad-tempered meeting, the agency decided to maintain its own ban on wood chips but to allow some "appellations" to experiment with them if they wanted to do so.
Purists at the meeting said that wood chippings would pollute the soil-rooted philosophy of quality French wine. Advocates said this was nonsense. Wood chippings had been used to flavour French wine since the 16th century. Oak chips were fine as long as they were from French oaks.
More subtly, some wine producers argued that the great chippings debate offered an opportunity to take a painful decision to save middle-market French wines, ie those costing upwards of €8 (£5) a bottle, from the New World juggernaut. The time had come, they said, to split the French quality wine industry into "leisure" wines and "excellent" wines. (Presumably, the rest would fall into a third, "plonk" or "cheap booze" category.)
Both kinds of quality wine would continue to have appellations d'origine, guaranteeing that they were made from grapes grown in a named region or village or field. But the top quality, expensive wines would be bound by much stricter rules.
A formal decision on the two-category system was delayed and the issue submitted to a committee. In essence, the decision has been made, without being made. Allowing "experiments" with chippings will lead gradually to a two- or three-tier system of French wines.
Apart from "coteaux de plonk", there will be affordable wines, ie Château Chippings, engineered to appeal to a presumed public and global taste. Wines of true character and individuality will progressively be reserved for the rich. Sigh.
Following my adventures with a Parisian café menu minced into English gibberish by the internet, here is an eye-watering recipe for Tagliatelli au saumon.
The French instructions were fed into an automatic translation service on the web by my cookaholic 12- year-old daughter, Clare.
"Cut salmon in cubes. Wash, dry, thin out the leaves of and engrave parsley. Carry a large salted water pan to boiling. Dissolve butter in jumping. Make there to return salmon 10 cubes min. Plunge the tagliatelli in ebullient water and make cook them the time indicated on the package.
Withdraw the pieces of salmon of the jumping one. Lower fire. Thaw the jumping one with the lemon juice. Then add mustard, whip and pour the cream in net, without ceasing whipping. Salt and pepper.
Give the pieces of salmon and make cook with soft fire 5 min. Drain the pastes and add them in the jumping one. Mix, rectify the seasoning and distribute in 6 hot plates. Strew with engraved parsley and are useful at once." Serve with a nice bottle of Château Chippings.
* If Ségolène Royal does become France's first woman president next May what will become of the father of her four children? Her unmarried partner of 25 years' standing, François Hollande, is leader of the Socialist Party. Would he be content to be male consort to Queen Ségolène? Apparently not. The following exchange appeared in an interview between M. Hollande and readers of the newspaper, Le Parisien, yesterday.
Reader: "If Ségolène is elected, where will you live? The Elysée Palace?"
Hollande: "At home."
Reader: "And Ségolène will live in the Elysée?"
Hollande: "That, you will have to ask her when the time comes. Whatever happens, I will live where I live now..."Reuse content