How the Wars changed French Cuisine
For a country that holds cuisine so close to its heart, here is a sneak peak into the lives of the French during times of rationing, and how food trends completely changed over time.
To understand and appreciate French food in modern France, it is important to know how it came to evolve. By uncovering the layers of the history of French food, like the layers of a mille-feuille pastry, I hope to give you a new sense of appreciation of this rich gastronomic culture.
On the eve of the world’s First World War, France had approximately 5,400,000 farmers contributing to the economy. As the front was set, mostly in the fields of the northeast and borders with Germany, almost 2,500,000 hectares of agricultural land was lost. Productions of wheat, barley and oats plummeted by 40%, leaving only the humble potato to compensate. Yet it was not only the civilian that suffered…
During the First World War, the diet of a soldier in the army consisted of pretty basic foods; bread, fruit, wine and sausages. Iron rations, or meats, were very limited due to supply shortages, and warm meals were only served if the platoon were able to create a makeshift kitchen. Troops would be lucky to have soup or stew, or even a hot cup of coffee. There were 3 levels of rationing back in the days of the war.
The first was called the Standard Ration which consisted of a two week meal plan including vegetables, meats, desserts, baked goods and wine. It was very well rounded.
The Field Ration was a shorter menu and the main one used for the troops. There would be travelling kitchens set up in zones of combat, so ingredients were limited and meals were not very balanced.
The Reserve Food became the standard for French troops from 1915 onwards, and although it was of atrocious quality, it didn’t lack in quantity.
During the war in France, alcohol became a symbolic part of life and culture, and even the biggest artists and authors would drink to drown away their sorrows. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are know to be part of the « Lost Generation », who drank to forget the horrors of war during the following decade.
In France, the wine making industry boomed, as production and distribution was in demand for the trenches. Campaigns were created to encourage average citizens to conserve their wine as part of the war effort, so that stocks would go solely to troops.
The French solidarité was encouraged not just by these campaigns, but also through other projects throughout the city of Paris. The Grand Palais, which is now a museum and exhibition hall, was converted into a temporary hospital. Meanwhile, theatres were reopening and concerts were organised in an effort to keep up morale. Cafés offering food and dancing were extra crowded, until it gradually became evident that the war would last for a long time. The community spirit began to dwindle…
As times got tougher, the French government began to systemise the distribution of the city’s food . In 1915 a new law allowed the state to requisition grains and the means to make bread at a fixed price . In the years that followed, this same system was applied to eggs, sugar and milk, accumulating in the Ministry of Food Supply of 1917. Everything was taxed in order to limit consumption.
In 1885 France obtained control over northern Vietnam during the Sino-French War against China. French Indochina was then formed in 1887, composed of Vietnam and Cambodia, then later Laos. This federation between countries lasted until 1954, and so throughout both wars, the importation and exportation between Asia and France was affected.
With the outbreak of WWI, the French troops were called to return from Indochina. Not only did this break up families, but shipments to France fell to about a tenth of pre-war amounts. Europe was lacking in rice, corn, sugar, tea and coffee, and so diets changed accordingly, and dramatically at that. No more quaint espressos.
Years later, France was hit with World War II. Automatic weapons, bombs, and a whole lot of destruction.
By 1944, production of food in France was a mere 40 % of what it was in the 1930s. This is because of the German occupation and havoc wreaked on the French countryside and trade. In the fear of the arrival of German troops, many farms were simply left abandoned. Those that stayed could hardly afford the price of the highly taxed fuel to operate their machinery, and although resorting to horse drawn carts to do the same job, it was still too expensive to feed the animals.
Once the German troops arrived, the livestock was killed and eaten. Electricity supplies were cut, and food was spoiled. Even the ocean felt the effects of war. The commercial fishing industry in the English channel had been abandoned due to the heavy military presence, and so overcrowded herring began to commit suicide by beaching themselves in Normandy.
In 1944, a journalist for the French magazine Le Gerbe wrote,
“In the street, in the metro, in cafes, all you hear about is food. At the theatre or movies, when there’s an old play or movie with a huge banquet scene, the audience breaks into delirious cries of joy.”
The food was dearly missed during these years of crisis.
In fact, it was so missed that many French people were willing to break laws to be able to eat as they wanted. They bypassed their ration cards traded directly with merchants. Some even made counterfeit ration tickets, and others would disguise themselves as police officers to collect ration tickets from relatives of the deceased, whom they identified through the daily obituaries.
Yet ingredients were becoming scarce, and bakers started to cut corners. Wheat was replaced with corn maize, and flour from America was shipped to France. The baguette lost its special quality.
When you order a baguette from a boulangerie, ask for the tradition. This is made using the old, pre-war recipe. The fluffier, whiter baguettes were appropriated from French / American influences.
Restaurants in Paris
One French chef of the time, Auguste Escoffier, made a significant change to French cusine leading up to the Second World War.
He popularised the 5 Mother Sauces of French cuisine. They are as follows ;
Béchamel : milk-based sauce, thickened with flour
Espagnole : a brown veal stock sauce, thickened with a brown roux
Velouté : light stock-based sauce, thickened with a mixture of egg yolks and cream
Hollandaise : egg yolk, butter and lemon (or vinegar)
Tomate : made with tomatoes
Until the late 1800s, sauces were usually only used to mask the defects in meat and its flavour, caused by bad handling of livestock and storage. The Mother Sauces revisited these old recipes and paved the way for modern dining. At the time Escoffier worked for the Ritz, and so they were developed for the aristocracy of Paris and became popular in the luxury restaurants that were emerging.
At the time, an offshoot of his Velouté was named Sauce Allemande, which Escoffier degraded. It was changed to Sauce Parisienne to keep politics off the menu. He may have cooked for the Germans, but he wasn’t going to let them take over the kitchen!
Parisian bistros and cafés, before the Restaurant Control Regime, served about 500,000 meals per day. In 1940, as the state limited the portions of meat and butter served in restaurants, this number decreased dramatically. Meat deliveries at La Villette fell severely after French defeat . Restaurants either had to completely reimagine their menus, or turn to the black market to stay alive.
The government eventually agreed to exempt 6 luxury restaurants from these controls. This was to serve the Germans and their guests. The initial 6 included Maxim’s, Lucas Carton, Lapérouse, La Tour d’Argent, Drouant, and the Ritz. These restaurants had to collect the ration tickets for each meal ordered. The French insisted that high profits in these restaurants, and no limitations, should be compensated by a donation to the Secours National of 10 % of all profits.
Each consumer at Maxim’s orders what they wish, with no consideration for the menu.
Meanwhile, the rest of Paris was suffocating under the strict controls. Trucks that had replaced trains to supply food were requisitioned by the military. All 5,000 of them. Family parcels from the countryside that would transport food up to the big city were now impossible to send. Paris was isolated.
Once the War eventually ends with Hitler’s death then Japan’s surrender in 1945, the world began to rebuild itself…
Decades after the war
With the disappearance of ration cards, families in the 50s made the most of their easy access to meats. Roasts were very popular. Paté de campagne was popular, and still is today. Chou farci, or stuffed cabbage is a fiddly recipe that we see less and less, but the French still love their pots au feu, boudin noir, baked blood sausage, and riz au lait, milk rice, for dessert.
In the 60s, kitchens are very well equipped, with freezers and Tupperware that help to store things and keep all food fresh. A lot of frozen food is on the market, along with brands like Nutella, Ovomatine and Crunch. From overseas the French are influenced by Algeria and delicious couscous dishes. Gastronomique experimentation was rife, with truite aux amandes and pain perdu .
As the 70s rolled in, so did supermarkets. Everything from pizzas to paella, saucisson to cheese, was prepacked and wrapped for people’s convenience. Best sellers became the strawberry bonbons by Tagada and Kinder Surprise eggs. With dishwashing machines and preprepared meals, most households opted for the easiest dishes. Especially as women were joining the workforce at a faster rate than ever before.
The first McDonalds in France then made its appearance in Créteil in 1972, triggering the fast food wave. Henri Gault and Christian Millau promise that from 1980 onwards, no one would ever cook like Escoffier again…
The 80s was the era of duck à l’orange and bouchées à la reine, which are little stuffed pastries with creamy chicken and mushroom filling. Microwaved mashed potato and hot dog sausages, Knakis, are still popular today, sold in every supermarket.
In this decade there were really no more barriers in cuisine, you didn’t have to be in Italy to eat tiramisu anymore. Banana split and meringues were also very popular. In fact, these are the years of confectionary. Think Tubble Gum, Milky Way, Smarties and Twix (Raiders).
In the 90s , big mixed salads become popular – greens with goats cheese, bacon and liver. You can still order this at Chez Gladines in Paris, a restaurant I highly recommend and have visited more times I can count !
During this epoc France becomes more open-minded to Chinese cuisine, and the concept of ‘sweet and sour’ with pork and pineapple, for example. Panna cotta and chocolate lava cakes are à la mode, and sorbets replace the super creamy, rich icecreams that were popular during the decade prior.
In the 2000s, « Verrines » and finger food become a staple entrée when entertaining guests, and you can find my own personal favourite recipe here : Tuna and Peach verrine.
From the 2000s onwards, the French become quite taken with health food. Anti-aging diets, vegan restaurants, bio-organic grocery stores, and super-food recipes are all the rage.
Everywhere we can find warnings about the effects of gluten, lactose, and sugar, and raw food is known to be the real secret to ultimate beauty. The sales of blenders to make health juices and smoothies sky rocket, as people want to mask the bland or bitter tastes of ingredients like quinoa, kale, spirulina, charcoal, and pollen.
Modern day cuisine
According to Alain Ducasse, modern cuisine is less rich, and fits into our present lifestyles. He says,
« It has the DNA of traditional French cuisine, but it dials back on certain products. »
It doesn’t truly exist in itself, but it has the capacity to seduce today’s diners to the table.
In fact, one chef, Chef Allèno, brought the original Escoffier Mother Sauces back into popularity. They had disappeared for a while due to their fatty taboo.
The modern French want flavour and accessibility, but they also want health. This is the innovation of modern French cuisine.
The changing economy, politics and society is all reflected in food trends if we look closely enough, and sometimes it is the food itself that causes these changes. Just take the bread shortage for example. Wine only became a stereotype of the French culture because of tragedy in war, and yet it is used today to celebrate so many magical moments.
In Paris, you can taste all of these eras if you look for the right addresses, which is the beauty of this city. If you want to know more, accompanied by a local, I suggest taking one of our free walking tours, either in the Marais or Montmartre.
If you want to read more about the history of French cuisine, visit our article A Brief History of French Cuisine.