Beef remains an anthropological key to French identity
“THERE is no alimentary constraint which does not make the Frenchman dream of steak,” wrote Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, in 1957. Rare, in a lightly charred crust, it is the “comfortable bourgeois meal”. Flat and yellow-edged “like the sole of a shoe”, it forms the “bachelor’s bohemian snack”. An expression of muscular full-bloodedness and patriotic values, wrote Barthes, steak “communicates its national glamour” to the humble frites(chips) with which it shares a plate.
The French still tuck into more steak than any other European country, bar Denmark. They put away 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of beef per head every year, the equivalent of two generously cut steaks each week—fully a third more than the British (whom the French have long liked to call les rosbifs). A butcher’s display in France is a sumptuous celebration of scarlet bovine flesh. The habit is deeply rooted. Honoré de Balzac ate a steak a day while writing his novels. Auguste Escoffier, a French chef who brought fine dining to London in the 1890s, meticulously listed the cooking instructions (and sauces) for each cut. Do not flatten raw steak, he ordered, or this will “break the fibres, prompting the blood to separate from the flesh during cooking” and hence drain it of its glorious flavour.
Yet today steak consumption has gone into an unprecedented decline, as poultry sales have overtaken beef. Since 1990 beef consumption in France has dropped by 20%, while that of poultry has risen by a quarter. One reason is simply that beef is pricier. Health concerns about excessive intake of red meat have also played a part. Recent reports exposing cruelty to animals at a few French slaughterhouses will not have helped, either.
Above all, the rise of le sandwich, now commonly consumed at lunch by office workers in Paris, has robbed traditional brasseries of sit-down clientele. Over 2 billion sandwiches are sold each year in France, with home-grown chains such as Cojean or Paul competing with foreign brands like Pret A Manger. “We still buy quality meat at the butcher,” says Denis Lerouge of Interbev, a meat-industry lobby, “but we are increasingly replacing steak-frites at lunchtime with a chicken salad.”
It is hard nonetheless to imagine steak losing its place on the menu, or in the French mind, altogether. In contrast to its place in Anglo-Hispanic culture in North and South America, steak in France is not linked to the masculinity of horseback cattle-ranching. It has more to do with French rural tradition and terroir: the sense of local identity that links what is on the plate to its regional origin, such as the Charolais or Limousin breeds of cattle. “At the weekend people still want to bring the family together around a rôti de boeuf,” says a Paris butcher, tying up a fresh cut with cotton twine and a firm butcher’s knot. Red meat remains linked in the popular imagination to strength and virility, as Patrick Rambourg, a food historian, notes. As for vegetarians, in France they are still as rare as, well, a perfectly cooked steak.