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Monday, May 7, 2012

Drinking Water

Carrying a bottle of water is one of the easiest ways to be singled out as a tourist in Paris. Perhaps it is because many visitors spend the entire day walking from one site to the next without returning to their temporary residence in Paris, while the Parisians themselves spend more time at their homes and offices where they have greater access to water. In any case, it is rare to see a Parisian with a bottle of water in hand while in public, which makes those of us who carry bottles of water while outside stand out even more.

Over the last few years in France, I have gotten the impression that many of the French very rarely drink water. Here are a few examples:

-My girlfriend and I like to meet up with a friend of her father's for lunch every few weeks. On almost every one of these occasions, we drink a lot of wine. I like to have a glass of water on the side just to stay hydrated. I routinely offer water to our friend, and he always declines, and says "I don't need that." He says that he drinks nothing but water at home, but even at 73 years old, he is rarely there. He isn't a solitary case either. Another friend of his I have known for close to five years, and I do not think I have ever seen him drink a glass of water. Then again, they are in good health which makes the French Paradox even more confusing.

-In most cases in Paris, a carafe of water is only brought out on request. If you don't ask for water, you won't have it. Compared to my experience of growing up in the U.S. where a big glass of water is served without even asking for it, I found this bizarre when I first arrived here.

-Anytime that there is a heatwave in France, those watching the weather reports are constantly reminded to drink water to keep cool (and to go to the supermarket and stand in the frozen food aisles, one of the few places other than a hotel in France that has air conditioning). The lack of hydration was most likely the main reason that roughly 15,000 people perished as a result of the heatwave that hit France in 2003.

Why is it that the French seem to drink so little water? A likely explanation is that it is a habit which is left over from the past. In previous centuries, drinking alcohol was the safest way of drinking fluids as the process in which alcohol is made kills off the bacteria that contaminated much of the drinking water in the cities. In this case, one might be considered a fool for drinking water at all!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

French Beer

Grape based drinks receive a lot of attention in France, and rightfully so. However, a good percentage of France's terrain is not suitable for grape cultivation. As a result of the climate, regions of France such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Bretagne, and Alsace are fitting producers of beer. Many do not know outside of France (and even those that reside within its borders) that it is the home of some excellent beer.

Brewing dates back to at least the 11th century in the northern France, and to the time of the Gauls in Alsace. The Romans brought wine with them to Eastern France, and beer subsequently became the drink of the working class. The monasteries in both regions became the most reputable brewers during the Middle Ages up through the late 18th century, as outside of winter time, they were the only ones who were allowed to produce it. The French style Bière de Garde was produced in the wintertime by farmers in Northern France to be kept for the summer months as a result of the law. The French Revolution put an end to this regulation, and brewing flourished in Northern and Eastern France. There were roughly 2,000 breweries in France at the turn of the 20th century, though this number has dwindled to approximately a tenth of its former amount.

Unfortunately most of the French beer that people know in France is produced in enormous quantities and rather bland. In Paris, it is surprisingly difficult to find quality beer, as most bars serve only Kronenbourg and Heineken products. This is beginning to change, as beer is increasingly becoming a beverage of choice. This is leading to bars putting higher quality beers on tap and even led to the reopening of two breweries in Paris, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, after both had been closed for 40 years.

For those that live outside of France, other than the mass produced lagers which are not really worth the extra money to begin with, it is difficult to obtain high quality craft beer from France. Even when it can be found, it can suffer from the long voyage and may lose a lot of its character.

All the more reason to come to France and try some high quality beer.

(Certain facts from the article were obtained from Culinaria France by André Dominé and the Eyewitness Companions Guide to Beer by Michael Jackson).