Homemade or readymade that's question you may ask yourself while pushing the food around your plate at a French restaurant. Now, the government wants eateries to let diners know when meals are not freshly cooked on site in a move to save France's culinary reputation.
If you travel to France and sit down in a nice bistro in Paris to enjoy the delights of French cuisine, what you may find is... industrial food.
That doesn't necessarily mean it's tasteless and tough to eat but for many places it's simply cheaper and more practical to buy mass produced and frozen meals.
It might be surprising in a country whose gastronomy has World Heritage status but restaurants have been facing criticism for using ready made dishes, bought from wholesalers.
According to the 2 Michelin stars chef Thierry Marx, only half out of 175,000 restaurants in France are serving homemade food. "Many of them suffer because they are compared in terms of price to others who use ready to eat meals, or even ultra-processed food without telling their customers," he explains.
That's why the French government wants restaurants to specify when meals have not been prepared from scratch.
"A clear and compulsory mention will inform whether dishes are homemade are not" announced Olivia Gregoire, the French Trade Minister.
But if this "fait maison" label feels familiar to you, the reason why is that it actually already exists.
Back in 2014, France created a first "homemade" logo, that could be used to identify dishes made on site from raw ingredients. However this optional label failed to convince consumers and restaurant owners for whom it was not strict enough.
"This was a catch-all, that could include frozen food or ready to serve "tartare", according to the chef Xavier Denamur who owns five restaurants in Paris.
Since this flop, others certifications or standards emerged in France which you may have already seen on restaurants front.
The "Quality Restaurant" label launched by a group of top French chefs to distinguish “professionals practicing quality and homemade catering" is widely used across the country.
Another well-known label “Maître restaurateur” guarantees the use of at least 80% of fresh products.
Alain Fontaine, the head of the French Association for Maître Restaurateurs, has welcomed the ministry's announcement with enthusiasm.
"Making the homemade mention compulsory is a great initiative, it will "create jobs" and "reassure customers", especially before the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Will it be ready for Olympic Games?
With planning and preparation in full swing for the world's biggest sporting event, it's being widely seen as a publicity exercise to promote France PLC. But will the measure be ready on time?
Thierry Marx hopes so : "it would an opportunity to "shine the spotlight on French gastronomy".
French Trade Minister Olivia Grégoire wants this new rule to become compulsory by 2025. Several weeks of discussions with industrials and restaurants owners, however, are now due to begin to define precisely how it will be displayed.
"It could for example be an asterisk which refers to the dish at the bottom of the menu. It's less punishing and easier for restaurant owners to implement," suggested Alain Fontaine.
The French government is also planning to require that France's consumer and fraud protection agency increase checks on misleading use of the label or non-compliance.
Home is where the heart is
In the meantime, If you travel to France and sit down in a nice bistro, here are few tips from a French foodie to avoid readymade favourites like boeuf bourguignon and veal blanquette.
- If there are too many choices on the menu (more than 15 main dishes let's say) be wary.
- Check if the dishes are not “too basic” like duck confit, gratin dauphinois, Shepherd's pie or even chocolate mousse. Those meals are likely to be prepared by industrial suppliers. (That's why many restaurants specify already on their menu "homemade" next to those dishes when they are.)
- If the menu does not take into account the change in seasons, then be extra careful - as frozen products are more likely to be used.
- A complete menu at too low a price is also worthy of suspicion.
- If you have any doubts, do not hesitate to ask
They are plenty of restaurants across France serving delicious freshly cooked food. It would be a shame to not taste the (real) delights of French cuisine. Bon appétit !