French cuisine loses its savor


Food: Mad cow disease and a series of scandals have shaken the country to its culinary core.

January 01, 2001|By John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ORLEANS, France - If there is a Gallic version of hell, it surely must be this: to watch as food you love is outlawed or deemed dangerous, and to hear that eating it may lead to sickness and death.

Last month, Philippe Bardau, the top-rated chef in this former royal capital on the Loire, took all beef-based dishes off the menu of his 19-table restaurant, which boasts a star in the Michelin guide. No one, Bardau says, dare order his Bavarian beef tenderloin or veal cutlet garnished with veal sweetbread ravioli anymore.

"All this really makes me sorry," the rotund 38-year-old chef says as he sits in the dining room sipping espresso. "Small cattle farmers are getting hit in the head by all this, and some are going to die."

Up the street from the restaurant, Christiane Rose was shopping at the Chatelet market for the makings of dinner. "I will no longer buy beef brains or things like that," the 45-year-old office worker says. "No more organs either - I'm waiting a bit. I've also reduced the amount of beef I eat, but, well, from time to time I buy some anyway."

A veritable food fright has taken hold in France, Germany and other European Union nations. The main cause is an ailment in cattle, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE - popularly known as mad cow disease - that scientists believe causes a similar brain-addling and ultimately fatal condition in humans.

In France, two people have died from the human form of BSE, "new variant" Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In all the EU countries, a spokesman for the trade bloc said last month, 89 people have been infected, 77 of whom have died.

Last year, from Ireland to Germany, 1,563 cases of BSE were detected in European cattle, and consumers across the Continent have become increasingly alarmed. In recent weeks, beef sales in the 15-nation EU have plummeted by 40 percent.

For the EU, mad cow disease might be the bloc's most urgent problem, at least in the eyes of millions of jittery Europeans.

Nowhere is the phobia about red meat or other suspect foods more acute than in France, where 125 instances of BSE have been detected this year. This is a nation, after all, where the equation "cuisine equals civilization" has served as justification for a supreme certainty about France's place in the world.

Until recently, McDonald's was the most popular target for vilification as the intruder responsible for what people contemptuously term "la malbouffe" - roughly, "disgusting food." For many French, the chief threats to wholesome, delicious food were U.S. invaders, including beef from hormone-fed cattle and genetically engineered crops such as corn and soybeans.

But the BSE crisis, and a succession of highly publicized product recalls and hygiene scandals, have shaken the confidence of the French in their agribusiness sector, which is second only to that of the United States as an exporter of food. In the Dordogne region in southwestern France, 23 tons of rotten duck meat were seized by inspectors. In the southwestern town of Castelnaudary, a producer recalled 2 tons of "merguez," a beef- and lamb-based sausage, after detecting strains of listeria, a potentially deadly bacteria.

One leading manufacturer of Camembert, the hockey-puck-shaped cheese that is France's most popular, was exposed by a Paris newspaper in the fall for diluting with water the whole milk it uses. Last year, it was revealed that some French farmers were purchasing processed human waste from water-treatment plants to feed their pigs, fish and poultry.

As worries about BSE mount, andouillette sausages that use bovine intestines for casing, veal sweetbreads (the thymus glands of calves, often served in puff pastry with sauce) and T-bone steaks have been banned in France. In many towns, jumpy mayors have imposed bans on beef in school cafeterias.

"Today in France, we're not eating as well as we used to," says Lydie Livnat, a 55-year-old Parisian. "It's too artificial. Even in restaurants, I don't eat meat anymore. ... Already, we all were dying of cancer, so why make things worse?

"I'm not afraid of dying, no," she said. "But I don't want to be poisoned."

La malbouffe, the French have been discovering with a shock, can be French as well.

No one has been hurt more than the men and women who earn a living raising or selling beef, the chief ingredient in countless French culinary specialties, from beef Bourguignon, a savory stew of beef, red wine and onions, to the bistro blue-plate standard of steak and fries. In the heartland city of Clermont-Ferrand, thousands who raise beef gathered last month to protest the declines in the demand and prices for their product and to insist on more government aid.

At Orleans Viandes, a slaughterhouse here that supplies customers as far away as Paris, 70 miles to the north, workers used to butcher 200 cows a week on average. The number has dropped to 100, director Gerard Cladiere says.

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