Halal – France’s Future Nouvelle Cuisine?
France’s new self-styled “beurgeois, (from slang for Arab) — or halal gourmets, as the New York Times recently described them — are entrepreneurs changing the image of halal food from its earlier associations with grubby immigrant street markets, into a multi-million-euro business.
But Halal is not brand neutral. It carries a health warning and as it spreads in officially secular France and elsewhere in Europe, it is fraught with religious and political overtones. Indeed Halal products, a market said to be worth 1.5 trillion dollars worldwide, according to a BBC report, are too often seen as the more palatable face of a package which includes minarets, burqas, dogma and radicalism.
So it must be a real challenge to the Michelin-star resto inspectors these days as they do their custodial duty to la vrai cuisine française, when they find that even well-respected Traiteurs, among them Aveyron-based foie gras and terrines king Roger Vidal, are embracing gastronomic halal food. And that of course before they even consider what is happening elsewhere in the hallowed halls of haute cuisine.
For when caterers like Fleury Michon, Herta and Pierre Martinet begin rolling out halal options, and Évian stamps some of its thermal spring waters “halal-friendly”, the great cooking traditions that are France’s hallmark and the draw-card for millions of tourists, must surely be in peril. How do master French chefs or their maitre d’ rate a Halal-style non-alcoholic coq-a-vin one wonders?
Indeed the news that the Belgians (infamous for pink beer) had developed Cham’Alal, an alcohol-free Halal champagne aimed at lighting the fires of the Muslim world, must have set a few sommeliers’ heads a-shaking.
There are some who do think Halalism has gone too far.
Earlier this year, René Vandierendonck mayor of the northern town of Roubaix, laid a complaint against Quick after the fast-food chain opted for exclusively halal meat in eight of its restaurants in the town’s heavily Muslim-populated neighbourhoods and at the same time stopped selling any pork-based foodstuffs.
Quick quickly insisted the moves were merely a market test of Halal potential in France. A Court challenge against them has failed and Quick recently announced it was “converting” more of its outlets.
M. Vandierendonck called the move discrimination against non-Muslims. His views were backed by voices in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling party, including agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire. The minister said by removing pork from its menus, Quick “had fallen from its former secular commitments into sectarianism” .
Sectarian it may be but there appears to be no common standard surrounding the practises and rituals involved in Halal. France has authorised the grand mosques of Paris, Lyon and Evry to oversee ritual halal slaughter and certification, but unofficial groups, driven by the money to be made from certification — 150 to 160 euros to certify a slaughter house — have now begun issuing stamps of approval.
France’s official Muslim council (CFCM) wants the country’s mosques and Islamic groups to come together to agree clear national guidelines and definitions for halal meat. The halal market is twice as large as that for organic foods in France and is expected to grow 20% a year.
The outspoken animal-rights activist Brigitte Bardot — France’s eternal sex symbol even at 76 – has often been outspoken about religious slaughter practises. She recently expressed anger at the march of the beurgeoisie saying that halal meat “has invaded France.” For repeatedly expressing very non-PC views over the past 15 years and making some virulent statements about France’s 5-million or so Muslims, Bardot has been convicted five times of incitement to racism. She has also been fined between 2,300 and 23,000 euros. Yet this has done little to dampen her vociferous opposition to “cruel sports like bullfighting” and traditional halal and kosher animal slaughter methods. Indeed she may have struck a public chord — a survey taken ahead of her 75th birthday in 2009 suggested that 68% of the French still held a favourable opinion of la Bardot.
Whatever the political connotations, there is no doubt the business world has cottoned onto a money spinner, with major Halal food fairs held annually in Europe and across the Middle East and Malaysia, attracting hundreds of would-be and established food entrepreneurs.
Restaurateurs too have plunged in to meet the demand as purchasing power rises among a wealthier second-generation Muslim community.
Want halal ravioli Gorgonzola, tartiflette or beef tenderloin? Try the Alhambra restaurant in Paris’ Seine-Saint-Denis, which offers an international menu. Couscous and tagine are notably absent though. “We try to offer any cuisine , except Maghrebi,” says Nabil Djedjik, a partner in the business. The Alhambra has won a prized AVS (At your service) certification and it varies its menu every six months. Coming soon says M Djedjik: mussels in white wine. Without white wine, of course.
Story: Ken Pottinger
UPDATE-Circular saws and tape recorded prayer: Are consumers being taken for a ride? This, from a long report in London’s Daily Mail, raises questions the authors of European Union directives on the subject might have trouble answering: “Some of the other bigger poultry factories who are supplying the supermarkets claim the chicken they produce is halal – but it’s not really. Instead of using a Muslim man as the killer, they use an automatic circular saw and a tape recorder to play the prayer. They can’t do it properly because of the sheer volume of chickens they have to kill to meet demand. Some of the factories are doing one million birds a week.”
In Paris the Halshop is the latest upmarket Halal outlet to open.
Meanwhile: GateGourmet plans to make most of its airline meals halal
FOOTNOTE: Meanwhile and as if further to rile the busy Brigitte, the traditional Feria du Riz bull festival opened in Arles (Bouches-du-Rhône), before a crowd of 10,000 enthusiasts and equally committed protesters. The first fight was peacefully prefaced by the “pros” and the “antis” on the streets outside Nimes’s famous bullring. Nouvel Observatuer reported that some 1500-2000 protesters gathered uneventfully to show support for bullfighting during the morning while 1800 -3000 opponents genteelly agreed to wait until the afternoon to make their views known. A very sol y sombra protest then!