France's Troubled Romance With Beef

Is French gourmet culture becoming less French?

Jacques Pepin’s mother ate steak to her very last days.

“My mother lived to be 100 and could have had a steak and salad every day of her life,” the celebrated chef told me, referring to a very common, very French lunch. “She would put it in a skillet and sauté it for 30 seconds on one side, then 30 seconds on the other side, serve it cold, red in the center.”

Pepin’s mother might have been part of a last generation of traditional beef-eaters in a country whose renowned cuisine includes bifteck-frites, beef bourguignon, and yes, steak. French beef, in fact, is world famous: It dominates European beef-cattle markets and is identified by chefs all over the world for the rich flavor it gets from the grassy pastures of northwestern France, its characteristic marbled consistency making typical French dishes nearly impossible to reproduce abroad. Beef, in other words, is the centerpiece of French cooking. And because food is so intertwined with French culture, beef is in some sense a marker of French identity.

But beef is facing an unprecedented decline that is challenging the very core of gourmet French cuisine. Industry experts say the threat to French beef comes not only from the increased attractiveness of imports but also from a broader change in France's food culture, which has gradually come to rely less on fine technique and complex flavors, in a trend that some classically trained chefs like Pepin fear is undermining what it means to be French.

According to France’s two main beef-trade organizations, La Viande (literally, “The Meat”) and Interbev, France devotes 13 million hectares of land—an area the size of Greece—to cattle farming, a multi-billion euro industry. But that may be starting to change. For one thing, foreign beef has become more competitive in France, because of both lower prices and fading health concerns about imports. EBLEX, the trade association for the English beef and sheep industry, noted in a recent report that British beef—banned in France during the era of Mad Cow Disease—has now become popular there, in part because of the high cost of French beef. Local beef is also facing competition from American, Spanish, German, and Irish imports, meaning French cattle ranchers are losing their monopoly on the country's palettes.

Another part of the problem for French beef producers is that meat consumption is in decline not only in France but the European Union overall. La Viande's most recent trends report shows that beef and overall meat consumption has fallen by 15 percent across France between 2003 and 2010.

The decline of overall meat consumption in grams per day in France between 2003 and 2010. Beef, the red portion of the bar, remains the most popular meat, but its share of total meat consumption has declined over the same period. (Interbev)

In addition to these larger trends, there are subtler shifts complicating France's longstanding love affair with bovine meat. Pepin has noticed a new focus on sustainable, organic, and fusion cooking among his fellow French chefs. Traditional French cuisine is famed for rich gravies, creamy sauces, thick cuts of beef, and slatherings of butter—a heaviness that inspired Julia Child, host of the 1960s-era cooking show The French Chef, to quip, “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” Child's cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking contains 40 pages of elaborate, authentic beef recipes, in which she advises readers to "learn as much as possible about grades and cuts of beef, as a vague beef-buyer is open to countless unnecessary disappointments and expenses."

But today’s French foodie is more likely to eat mindfully, said Pepin. Healthy, light meals that avoid the cholesterol-inducing, fatty components of Pepin's cultural heritage are making a splash on the French restaurant scene. Being vegetarian is not just à la mode, but becoming increasingly acceptable in a country where, as a Paris travel-guide editor recently told the BBC, merely requesting a vegetarian dish at a restaurant elicits the response, “Why, are you ill?”

Consider celebrated chef Alain Ducasse's haute Parisian spot at the Plaza Athénée, where Ducasse has taken red meat off the main menu. Ducasse's inspiration, according to his website, is the “fish-vegetables-cereals trilogy ... Healthier and more natural, more respectful of the Planet, it delivers a free and nearly instinctive interpretation of Haute Cuisine.” (Ducasse's publicist, Emmanuelle Perrier, later told me that the menu wasn't completely vegetarian, as a rotating separate menu would list meat options that might include beef.)

Pepin traced this movement away from meat to the nouvelle cuisine movement, a gastronomic reaction to traditional French haute cuisine, focused on light, delicate dishes.

“The emphasis is on portion,” Pepin said. “In modern French cuisine, haute cuisine is passé ... Smaller portions, fresher things, all arranged on a plate, less time cooking—all of that is nouvelle. Beef is not on the menu as much as a number of years ago." Alongside this evolution in French cuisine, France's immigrants have injected diversity, and more non-beef options, into the food scene. Paris, for example, has a substantial collection of Indian restaurants; Asian noodle shops, Pepin said, have become fashionable.

But these trends have inspired a pro-beef backlash, and there are new efforts to literally make beef sexy again. Take BEEF! magazine, which debuted in France in March, and which bills itself as “the magazine for men who have taste.” Olivier Picon, BEEF!'s publications director, told me it has gotten a “tremendous reaction.” Part men's magazine, part cooking periodical, the publication, in Picon's words, "speaks to these men that are not afraid to confront their virility with cooking stoves." He said it has encouraged discussion of beef culture in France. Then there is Boeuf-Lovers, a website launched earlier this year that purports to connect fellow carnivores for meetings and claims to be “the first dating site for lovers … of beef.”

Also bucking France's trend of declining beef consumption has been a surge of Paris steakhouses, which, ironically, aren’t exactly French. Caillebotte is a hot bistro featuring a Kansan Angus cut. The Beef Club is exactly what its name describes, with cuts selected by celebrated butcher Yves Le Bourdonnec from English and Scottish breeds. Café des Abattoirs mimics a New York steakhouse. Beef is popping up in other places too—according to one study, half the sandwiches sold in France last year were hamburgers.

But despite such attempts to return to the glory of beef, Pepin said he worries that French gourmet culture is becoming less French, particularly when it comes to steak. “When I was a kid, you could afford to have steak once a week,” he remembered. “But that was high-quality beef that we don’t have now. The portion is a big difference.” Pepin noted that steak sizes at restaurants in both America and France have grown from the 8-ounce dinner entrée portions of his youth, to 12-ounce pieces, to, in some cases, 45-ounce slabs. Beef in France has been McSized. And Pepin said he isn’t sure just serving up a larger portion of beef will remind diners of the French food culture defined by the traditional cuisine of his mother's generation.

“What I’ve seen in France is plus ou moins la même choses,” he said, invoking the French for “more of the same thing” in describing the attempt to create increasingly modern dishes that run away from the core of classical French food. “I would love to find a restaurant with old stews, frog legs, chicken liver custard. … These are now difficult to find.”