05 July 2009

Typically French?

What is the typical French meal? Blanquette de veau ? Bœuf bourguignon ? Soupe à l'oignon ? Escargots ? Non, mes amis. C'est le steak-frites. Steak and French fries. More French people in more French restaurants and cafés eat steak-frites every day than any other meal.

I guess that's why we Americans call deep-fried potatoes "French" fries. In other countries they are called "chips", as in "fish and ..." For us, they're "French" fries, even though the Belgians supposedly invented them and do them best. And "steak" — that isn't a very French-looking word, is it? French borrowed the term from English. Sometimes it's Frenchified into bifteck or even biftek, just as "roast beef" ends up as rosbif in French.

Sometimes "steak" is spelled with a C: steack. Here's a web page treatise on the subject of the different French ways of spelling the English word "beefsteak."

In France, the beef for steak (a.k.a bifteck or biftek) comes from
grass-fed cattle, and it's pretty different from typical U.S. beef.

It's leaner and gets tough if you cook it beyond medium-rare.

Frites is short for pommes frites, which is in turn short for pommes de terre frites. Potatoes, or "earth apples," were brought to Europe from Peru in the 1500s, and for a couple of centuries the French considered them to be unfit for human consumption, and even toxic. Now they are the mainstay of the French diet. Frites. Gratin dauphinois. Purée de pommes de terre. Pommes sautées. Pommes vapeur. Pommes de terre however you want them, really.

Pommes de terre frites.
These were made from fresh bintje potatoes, but I'm sure most of
the frites you get in France these days are made with frozen potatoes.

What is the typical French cheese? In a country that produces — according to different authorities — anywhere from 250 to 1000 different cheeses from cows' and goats' and ewes' milk, how can there be a "typical" French cheese? Well, there is. And we all know what it is... c'est le camembert.

A typical supermarket-brand Camembert cheese,
made with pasteurized cow's milk.

Camembert is made all over France, and all over the world. Since 1983 the name Camembert de Normandie ("of Normandy") has been legally limited to cheeses made near the village of Camembert in Normandy using raw milk from a specific breed of cattle produced in a strictly defined production zone. On the other hand, Camembert cheeses labeled Camembert fabriqué en Normandie ("made in Normandy") are something else entirely. They're made in factories by industrial processes, using pasteurized milk that comes from who-knows-where.

There's no doubt that most of the Camembert cheese sold and consumed in France is made in factories (like most American cheeses), and a lot it it is not made in Normandy at all. And then, Camembert is supposedly just a knock-off of Brie anyway, and has existed only relatively recently (since 1791). Brie has been around much longer, it seems. Still, Camembert has been called one of the "gastronomical emblems" of France.

The Citroën 2CV

And what about the typical French car, in the world's view? It has to be the Citroën 2CV, known as the Deux Chevaux — "Two Horses" or "Two Horsepower." Why is it called that? Well, for the French government the cheval fiscal, or CV, is a "horsepower" rating used for tax purposes. It doesn't have much to do with the American use of the term horsepower.

The Citroën 2CV has a very small engine, as you might suspect. Bigger, heavier, more modern cars have engines rated from 4CV to 8CV or higher. Even my tiny Peugeot 206 has a 4CV engine. Starting in 1998, the formula used to calculate CVs was changed to include a measure of the amount of CO2 exhaust produced by car engines. The higher the CV rating of your car engine, the higher the taxes you pay on it when you buy it.

The decal on the back window of this 2CV says:
"This is more than a car, it's a thirst for adventure"

The last 2CVs made in France rolled off the production lines in 1990 — in Portugal. Production of the car stopped earlier in France. In all, more than five million were built. All the 2CVs you see in France are 20 years old or older now. And you still see quite a few of them. They are collectors' cars, and some of them are quite finely restored.


  1. Great post Ken!

    My heart goes to the poulet rôti/frites and Roquefort ;)

    As for the car, of course it has to be the 2 chevaux.

  2. We had a 2CV until late 1975. In its last year, it lost the gear pedal, so Paul just changed gears by ear! Some great things you remember -- they had a rollback roof, front windows that would bang down on your elbow if you went into a pothole or over a bump, and back seats that you could take out in a jiffy for picnics and sunbathing comfort.
    As far as the plat national is concerned, in company cantines, it seems that couscous is now the most popular.

  3. Ken,
    Love the Deux Chevaux.
    Our car club Citroen Classic Owners Club of Australia has many members owning 2CVs along with Traction Avants, and DSs.
    They even run a "Raid" for 2CVs that takes in "Outback OZ".
    Just amazing.
    Enjoying the blog. Howz the nieghbors wine lately.

  4. Can't pass the verification word : sanzince[ou] or penniless.

    As far as 2CV is concerned, it's a shame they stop building it. It was cheap as an investment, and in these days of expensive gas it would be very frugal. RIP

  5. Very interesting post! I am pleased to learn about all of these tidbits, especially the difference between camembert de Normandie and camembert fabriqué en Normandie, the the explanation of deux chevaux.

    Always good stuff chez Ken B.!


  6. Thanks for 2CV photos and information. I'd never want to own one but think they are so symbolic of France.

  7. I love a good steack-frites (however it's spelled) and often order that when I go out to a café or bistro that doesn't have a lot of exciting dishes.

    I am trying to catch up with some blog commenting and I see you have been faithful to your post! You're the blogger who has the most posts (30) piled up in my Google Reader.

    I'm off to the USA tomorrow though, so I won't be reading through them all today...

  8. Bonjour Betty, oui, c'est moi, fidèle au poste en ce moment. Bon voyage et bonnes vacances aux USA.


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