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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).

Friday, March 2, 2012

What a Restaurant Should Be Like

France has long been revered for its position in the gastronomical hierarchy. The concept of the modern restaurant originated in Paris in the late 18th century (though other sorts of communal eating establishments had existed long before this). UNESCO even recognized French cuisine on their "World Intangible Heritage" list. Their intention is not to recognize the ingredients or the food itself, but the ritual of the meal which has held such importance in the social lives of the French for so long.

Unfortunately, like many cultural traditions, the long meals in France are becoming less commonplace than they were a generation ago. While a few still take a leisurely-paced lunch break, most only take enough time to grab a sandwich and get back to the office. Eating at the office desk would have been unimaginable in the past, yet many feel they have far too much to do to partake in the daily ritual of a two hour lunch break.

In Paris in particular, people are straying further away from tradition. McDonald's restaurants are seemingly everywhere (there are 1,228 in France) and they have longer lines to get in than almost any restaurant in this city. A lot of the trendy and hip restaurants, while they may serve excellent food, appear to move away from seeming too traditional and give the impression of a restaurant that could be in hundreds of other cities worldwide. The food is important of course, and one would imagine that any good restaurant in Paris is aware of that, but the ambiance and sense of being a part of this long-lived French social ritual is equally important.

When I've talked with people that have traveled abroad, many remember the monuments and museums and other important historical attractions that a locale offers. However, the positive memories that always seem to be the strongest are those where the traveler is allowed to partake in a local tradition, or simply put, live like a local for a day. Whether it be eating a meal with a local family or going to a house party with a bunch of natives, those memories seem to be more gratifying than the throngs of people that one encounters at the touristic venues.

My girlfriend and I celebrated our fourth anniversary this week. As it happens to fall on February 29th, I guess one could call it our first. Since we don't have too many anniversaries, we needed to make this one count.

A few days before, a friend had asked me to make a reservation for her at a bistro, and while looking at their website, I noticed that the owner of the restaurant happened to be from Bozouls, which is a very small town (less than 2,800 people) in Aveyron. My girlfriend was thrilled to hear this, as her grandparents are also from Bozouls. It seemed like a good sign, so off we went for our anniversary dinner.

After being seated, my girlfriend could hardly contain her excitement, as she had brought a photo album of her trips to Bozouls to show the owner. As soon as we saw an opportunity, she slipped over to the counter, asked the owner for a minute of his time, and opened the album. "Ah Bozouls!" he cried. He proceeded to flip through the album and describe every house, it's inhabitants, and what they had done to either restore or ruin the property.

As this was going on, he seemed to forget almost everything going on around him. He excitedly walked us into the kitchen to show us another photo of his parents' house, and then another wall sized map of the town. We spent around 15 minutes talking before he needed to get back to work, as the restaurant was beginning to fill up.

The meal was nothing short of amazing, and in a restaurant where not just the owner, but all of the staff are so passionate about what they are doing, it is little wonder. We finished off our meal with a huge cheese course, and were almost too full to move.

As we went to the counter to pay, I pointed to a bottle of wine behind the counter, telling my girlfriend that the owner has a domaine near his ancestral home in the south. The waiter behind the register saw me and asked if we wanted to try it. There was little chance of us refusing.

After a glass was poured for each of us, he sliced off a large hunk of cheese for us to enjoy while we had the wine, and some more bread. No sooner than we finished that piece, the owner walked over and pulled out a big plastic bucket from under the bar. The bucket contained crème de roquefort that a friend of his had produced in Aveyron. As he spread some of the cheese on some bread for us to try, he said "Well you'll need to have some wine with it" and refilled another glass. A few customers sitting near the register were also treated to some thick hunks of bread slathered with the cheese. Some others asked a question about one of the wines, and were treated to a free glass of wine. Why? Well, why not?

We stayed and talked at the bar with a couple of the servers, and it was easy to see that they enjoy what they do, and took pride in upholding the tradition of a sociable meal for which France has long been famous.

As the world becomes more interconnected with each passing day, globalization is chipping away at many of the important cultural traditions unique to their respective societies. A lot of older Frenchmen say that restaurants like the one I discussed were the norm in their day. The sight of another McDonald's, Subway, or Starbucks being built is a depressing reminder that something as integral to French life as their social life at the restaurant table could be in danger if they cease to take the time to appreciate its importance.

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat, in addition to walking around some of Paris' best neighborhoods, take a look into my tours at

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I can't think of a better place to get into a deep philosophical conversation with a total stranger than in a bar.

There's a bar/restaurant just a few blocks from my apartment in the 15eme that I have been going to ever since I moved to Paris four years ago. It's the kind of place where I can walk in and shake hands or kiss all of the waiters and waitresses, as well as a couple of familiar customers who share the same enthusiasm about this locale's ambiance that I have. It's also the kind of place where I go for happy hour for one drink at 5:30 and end up staying there until 11pm or later. They have amazing food which makes it all the more difficult to pull myself away when I start to become hungry.

A couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend and I had just returned from the U.S. and decided to walk over and say hello to our friends. Within a couple of hours we were sitting at a table with two middle aged men that we had just met after they heard that we like good beer. One guy is a beer distributor and asked what beer we like. We name one and when we came back two weeks later, we see that the beer we named is now on tap, and according to the staff, thanks to our suggestion.

Back to that first evening, we decide to order food, and in the meanwhile, the other gentleman asks if I could review his song lyrics that are written in English, just to make sure that they are grammatically correct and do not sound ridiculous. We exchanged contact information, though I still haven't received those lyrics.

Somehow we got on to the subject of patriotism in France. Before I came to Paris, I had the impression that the French were very patriotic. My father told me that when he lived in France in the early 1960's that it didn't take much to stir up patriotic fervor amongst the French populace. One line of La Marseillaise could be enough instill pride in anyone with French blood. This was also during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, perhaps the most popular public figure in France in the 20th century, so he might have helped this cause.

My girlfriend and I commented on how no one seems very patriotic here anymore. The two gentlemen agreed and added an interesting viewpoint, summed up as follows; "If you act patriotic these days, then people will think you support the extreme right, and no one in Paris wants to be mistaken for that." It's a valid argument, as many right wing politicians essay to arouse patriotism amongst their political constituents, much more so than any other political group here. So perhaps it is a reason why many here in Paris are reluctant to be thought of as patriotic for fear of being associated with these groups, such as Front National. This could certainly be part of why patriotism has declined here, but there has to be more to it.

On the 14th of July, we usually join the masses at the Champs de Mars to watch the fireworks by the Eiffel Tower and hang out with a few friends. In 2008, my girlfriend wore a French flag around her shoulders and put a couple of miniature French flags in her hair. She's proud to be French and she does not care if others are aware of it.

When I went to watch the festivities that year, I was surprised by how much my girlfriend stood out amongst more than 100,000 spectators. There were hardly any French colors or flags anywhere! As we walked into the crowd, a couple of adolescents taunted her. A few others whispered jokes about her. We enjoyed the evening anyway, but coming from a country where flags are displayed virtually everywhere, especially on our national holiday, I was surprised.

That it appears that not many young Parisians know the words to La Marseillaise is perhaps another indicator that national pride is declining in this city. I feel that most non-French students who have studied the French language for more than a couple of years have had to learn the lyrics to the French national anthem, and every now and then a few remember the lyrics. At times when I have hung out with both French friends and others from abroad, those French present are usually impressed that someone knows a few lines to their national anthem. I've heard quite a few of these French acquaintances say that they probably know less of the words themselves than those from abroad who study French. It doesn't seem to be terribly embarrassing to them, rather they just think it's funny that foreigners who have studied French probably know their national anthem better than them.

Paris might not be the best place to judge patriotism in France, as seemingly most Parisians don't really care about anything anyway. I know that many Frenchmen are indeed proud to call themselves French. Perhaps their displays of patriotism are exuded in other ways, or maybe it comes in a self satisfaction that while many want what they have, few can have the privilege to call themselves French.

If any one has some opinions on this subject, I would love to hear it. Has French patriotism decreased in recent years? If so, why?

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat, in addition to walking around some of Paris' best neighborhoods, take a look into my tours at

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Differences in Business Mentality

In 1987, Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale University, wrote a book called "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers". Kennedy delves into the histories of past and current world powers, discussing how they came to be important, and how most eventually faded into history. Throughout this book, one sees a common theme: a nation gets powerful as a result of good decisions, a strong economy, and success in war. As a result of their success, many of these countries became over extended, had strewn their money and resources over far too large of an area, and eventually were the cause of their own demise.
One might wonder what this has to with the subjects that I normally discuss in my articles, but I'm getting there.
As I came across this theme in Kennedy's book, I came to realize that this type of rise and fall could be applied to other fields as well.
Let me give the example of someone opening a restaurant in the United States. With good promotion, products, and/or success, the workload will most likely increase. This is a good thing, to a point. It becomes tempting to continue to expand operations, hire more employees, and try to make more money. Since the restaurant one has is successful, why not open a second one? Why not use the extra capital to expand into a totally different direction or industry? Occasionally this works out, though oftentimes it does not. Companies can get too spread out and pay less attention to small details. This may lead to less personal attention to clients, more stress, and an increasingly unpleasant work life.
In France, French chain restaurants are a rarity in comparison to the seemingly endless amount of restaurant chains in the United States. Most restaurant owners in France are in charge of one sole restaurant, or in rare occasions, two or three. When posed with the question: "Your business is doing so well. Why don't you take advantage of it and open a second restaurant?" most would respond, "Why would I do that? I am already busy enough as it is."
By keeping operations relatively small, the French are able to focus on the quality of their products. Occasionally this will lead to high prices, especially if a vendor is offering a product with high demand. Many French culinary delicacies are able to pull this off.
In Julia Child's book, "My Life in France," American experts made suggestions for the French on how they could "increase productivity and profits" in their respective businesses. She suggests the following response to be what an average Frenchman might say:
"These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody has a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes that you suggest."
To comfort those that work far more than necessary, some complain that the French are lazy and don't get much done. As a result of this misconception, the fact that France is one of the most productive countries in the world is a surprise to more than a few. A survey conducted by UBS, a banking and financial services group, found that French workers are on the job more than 300 hours less per year than the world average. When comparing GDP per capita and number of hours worked per year, it actually turns out that the French are more productive than the Americans (French: The Most Productive People in the World, Business Insider, August 20, 2009).
Another difference in mentality is what one wants to achieve by working a full time job. Does one work to buy nicer things, or does one work just enough so that they can have plentiful time off? The differences in vacation time between the United States and France are well known, and yes, the differences are as staggering as reported. The French have, on average, 5 to 6 weeks of vacation time per year. Americans have, on average, two. Furthermore, many choose not to take their full vacations, for they feel like they will appear lazy for taking more than a few days off a year. I know of many Americans who work constantly throughout their vacation, even though they are supposed to be off work. An American friend of mine was told that he would be reprimanded if he turned his work cell phone off, even at night while sleeping (I should add that he was supposedly on vacation). The puritanical work ethic has remained ingrained in our collective consciousness in the U.S., whether we are aware of it or not.
Meanwhile in France, no work related anything gets done while on vacation. Bosses even tell their employees not to work while on holiday (not that they needed the reminder). While on vacation, emails are left unanswered and phones calls are hardly acknowledged.
No one in France would think of giving up his or her vacation. A friend of mine who worked in Paris told me that in her office of 60 or 70 employees, only 2 of them were at work for the majority of the month of August. Not surprisingly, the ones that stayed were not French.
While some in the world would prefer to work to increase prestige, privilege, and productivity, others are content to work just enough to provide a comfortable living for themselves and/or their families, have ample time off from work to be with them, and have time to pursue other pleasurable activities. Who can say whether one way of viewing one's career is the right or wrong way, but given the choice, I personally would choose the latter.
If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat, in addition to walking around some of Paris' best neighborhoods, take a look into my tours at

If you are on facebook, click like on my facebook page here. Thanks for reading!