Might Chevalgate Turn France Flexitarian?

Has Chevalgate —the European-wide horsemeat-for-beef-scam –persuaded some in epicurean France to commit heresy and contemplate a Flexitarian conversion? 

Has Chevalgate killed off the Filet mignon?

If this freshly-invented, somewhat ambivalent term conjures up rather confused images, spare a thought for the reactions — surely more than just a Gallic shrug — to be expected from the Chefs de partie, supervising preparations of filet mignon in France’s more than 60, 000 restaurants, should this ‘flexi’ fad catch on.

Claire Branchereau writing recently on Rue89 confessed that after investigating Chevalgate and attempting to trace the provenance of the ‘mince’ in her supermarket-bought burger she was inclined to consider other options such as vegetarian or perhaps more properly flexitarian.

(Business Insider defines the term here: ” A flexitarian (“flexible vegetarian”, interchangeable with “vegivore”) is defined as: “one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish”. The concept is booming in the US. Pat Crocker and Nettie Cronish, authors of Everyday Flexitarian, estimate that 30 to 40 per cent of Americans are flexitarians, while a survey by the Vegetarian Research Group found that 23 million people follow a “vegetarian-inclined diet”, compared to 7.3 million full-time veggies. Cutting down on meat can save money, too. Vegetarian meals are, on average, 60 per cent cheaper than meaty dishes .”)

Claire Branchereau’s concerns are apparently shared by increasing numbers of consumers. A March 1 poll by BVA for i>TÉLÉ showed one in four French households had given up buying ready-made dishes supposedly containing beef since Chevalgate first cantered into view.

Public trust in the food chain was further shaken in late March with reports  that veterinary officials had found 57 tonnes of banned British mutton stored in the freezers of the scandal-hit Spanghero meat products firm at Castelnaudary in south west France. Reporting the find French authorities said that the mechanically separated meat (MRM) or slurry in the trade and known as Pink Slime in Canada, had been bought by Spanghero from the Dutch broker Draap Trading.

Since the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease scandal in the 198os the European Union has banned all MRM separated from the bones of some ruminants to ensure bone chips or marrow with an infection potential are not mixed into prepared food.

The newspaper Direct Matin said the discovery raised many questions for which no answers had yet been provided. Had other companies been supplied with similar banned meat? How many tons had arrived in France and at Spanghero in particular? It urged a full investigation. Whatever the outcome this is merely the latest in a stream of reports in France and across Europe, of how the food supply chain has responded to the pressure of providing ever cheaper “meat” to increasingly cost-conscious customers.

According to FranceAgriMer, consumer behaviour following a food crisis “usually lasts a year…the worries that arose after the BSE  or  mad cow disease crisis saw a reduction in beef consumption of 30% for 12 months but this then returned to its previous levels.”

French beef consumption ranks high on the EU meat eating charts

Aymeric Caron, author of the book “No steak” (ed. Fayard),  in which he suggests that meat will soon disappear from people’s menus says:  “we must distinguish between short-term and long-term effects (of these ongoing food scandals). My book is selling well, but it was already doing so before Chavalgate. Crises involving meat have been on going now for more than twenty years and each time there is a new scandal its effects are added to those of the previous one. Eventually over time these all build  up to have a lasting impact”.

Unsurprisingly Chevalgate and related stories currently scaring the punters are sparking fresh interest in French culinary innovators such as Alain Passard. This 3-star Michelin chef is quoted in a recent Le Point (Issue 2113 print only) as calling for a wholesale return to earlier values: “I started down the road of vegetable cuisine in 2000 — I want to make the vegetable the grand cru or great growth of the table and ensure vegetable gardeners become the grand métier —  highly prized skilled artisans — of tomorrow, he says.

Passard says vegetable cooking as he advocates it, is the most creative form of cuisine thanks to the variety of colours, flavours, brilliance and transparency.” He urges his readers to respect the rhythms of the four seasons and use only what nature provides in the vicinity in each season for best haute cuisine results.

Alain Passard at a 2007 fooding event (Credit Phyllis Flick flickr)

Passard is patron and chef of l’Arpège restaurant in Paris and says: “Today I have two vegetable gardens that supply my kitchen with all the vegetables I use. The potager at Gros-Chesnay Fillé-sur-Sarthe is a 3 hectare farm planted with 500 varieties of vegetables and we harvest 28 tonnes of produce from it each year. The other is at Buis sur Damville in l’Eure, a 1.87 ha farm with 250 varieties and producing 10.8 tonnes of vegetables for the restaurant”.  He is passionate about one basic requirement: all cooking should follow the seasons adding that he has opted  for completely “green” or organic food  —  all his fresh produce comes from his own organic farms tilled by horses not tractors where the terroir for the different vegetables is carefully planned.

“We must return to our roots,” the chef urges,  “a real tomato requires 120 to 150 days from the time the seed is planted to the time it is ready for harvesting. Compare that to the 50 days permitted in aquaponic greenhouses producing the out-of-season tomatoes that most of us consume.”

Here are his seasonal recommendations:

Winter: Winter radishes, winter turnips Topinambour, Salads, Leeks, Carrots, Brussel sprouts, parsley root, parsnip

Autumn: Squash, Spinach, Pumpkin, Beet, Celery, Endive, Mache, Salsify, Rutabaga, Cauliflower, Cabbage greens, turnip

Summer: Tomatoes, Cherry Tomatoes, Zucchini, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Melons, Berries, Beans, Garlic, Onions, sweet peppers, basil …

Spring: Greens, peas, asparagus, radish, garlic, new potato, new carrots, herbs, Red Fruits, Flowers, Garlic Mustard, Nettle, Spinach, Shallots

Story: Ken Pottinger

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