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How to save French specialities

27 April 07 17:48 GMT
By Lisa Jardine

The real France is about regional industry, but they may have to accept the new methods to save ancient traditions.

" It is sometimes easy to forget just how big France is.

It is by far the largest country in the European Union - bigger than Spain and twice the size of the UK.

And despite its network of motorways, it will take you two days comfortably to drive from its northernmost border at the English Channel to its sun-drenched southern coast, lapped by the Mediterranean.

The pictures on the television news this week, showing revellers celebrating the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and socialist Segolene Royal's success in making the second round of the presidential election, were almost entirely focused on Paris.

They gave us no hint of the significantly different reactions of communities away from the capital. They barely addressed the fact that France is a country of distinctive local cultures, richly varied and fiercely independent of one another.

Perhaps on account of its size, France led Europe in producing scientifically measured maps. At the beginning of the 1670s, the French king, Louis XIV, invited the renowned Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini to take charge of his new Royal Observatory, just outside Paris.

Between 1676 and 1681, a team of French astronomers, using Cassini's new method for determining longitude, based on tables of observations of the moons of Jupiter, mapped France's entire coastline, and established the exact dimensions of Louis XIV's kingdom.

Cassini's new map of France was published in 1693, its new contours directly superimposed on an outline of the best previous map. The town of Brest on Brittany's westernmost point could be seen to have moved a full fifty miles eastwards, and the redrafting showed dramatically that France had been reduced in size by a fifth.

'Musee locale'

The king was allegedly prompted to remark that he had lost more land to his astronomers than his enemies had ever taken from him in battle.

If you have ever travelled by road across France, it is practically certain that you will have been tempted at least once to take a turn off your route, to follow an intriguing signpost pointing to the region's "musee locale" - the museum devoted to whatever that region is most famous for.

Every wine-producing region will, of course, have its museum of "vines and wine-making". At Camembert, Saint Marcelin and Livarot there will be a Museum of Cheese, devoted to the history of its local manufacture, the utensils used in the process and the scientific stages of fermentation.

Grasse, "cradle of traditional perfume making", naturally boasts a Perfume Museum. One of the regional museums dearest to my own heart is at Menerbes in the Luberon - the Museum of the Cork-Screw, dedicated to that essential piece of equipment associated with the wine industry. It boasts a thousand individual, hand-crafted cork-screws, the oldest dating from the end of the 17th Century.

In Aquitaine, not far from Bordeaux, is the complementary Museum of the Wine-bottle Cork, where you can follow the manufacturing process, which begins with the stripping of bark from the cork oak trees.

As an oyster-lover, though, my favourite local museum is the Museum of the Oyster in the fishing-village of Bouzigues, not far from Montpellier. Here you can learn how seed-oysters are attached to vertical hemp ropes strung on wooden frames, running vertically down to the sea bed.

There they grow until the ropes are hauled up and the mature oysters harvested. Every aspect of the life of the "peasants of the sea" - the oyster fishermen - is lovingly recreated, and you can follow your visit with a boat tour around the oyster beds themselves.

At the end of my last visit, I bought a pewter-cast pair of oyster shells, forming a charming container, which sits on a shelf in my kitchen, and in which I keep sea salt from nearby Aigues-Mortes (which naturally boasts its own Museum of Salt).

Proud temperament

Museums like these are born out of French local pride in the traditional activities which have shaped their "terroir" - giving each locality its typical landscape and buildings, and sustaining the lives of its population, close to the earth.

This is the same proud temperament that currently makes France so resistant to change. Rapid change, the French will assure you, will produce homogeneity and lead to the erasure of those special local qualities that have always sustained them.

The rhetoric of both candidates embarking on the second round of the French presidential election is aimed at reassuring the electorate that necessary change will not come at too high a price.

And yet, in their hearts, the French must know that the days are over when any government could justify subsidising smallholder-produced, richly-varied market produce, and supporting small local specialist manufacturers with special tax-exemptions.

There is a hollow ring, these days, to the mantra, that "quality of life is worth sustaining at any cost".

Those in France who fear that new economic measures introduced by either Sarkozy or Royal are bound to destroy a much-loved way of life, might, however, take comfort from us here in Britain.

Here, drastic economic reforms have given rise to a prosperous, confident nation. And gradually, the regionality which we too cherished and believed threatened, is coming back - in viable form. My example of such a successful revival, it may not surprise you to hear, is the oyster industry at Whitstable.

The Romans were the first visitors to discover the wonders of the Whitstable oyster - an extremely local delicacy, which thrived on the particular environment and sea-bed formation off the Kent cost.

A flourishing economy developed alongside the oysters - a profitable fishing-fleet, harvesting and grading factories, and a wide variety of eateries.

In the 1850s the Whitstable Company of Free Fishers and Dredgers sent 80 million oysters to Billingsgate a year. Abundant oysters became the fast-food fad of the 19th Century, on sale for just a few pence a dozen.

Cork lesson

By the 20th Century, demand had fallen, and, following three exceptionally severe winters when the sea froze over, right across to the Isle of Sheppey, and disastrous floods in 1953, the oyster beds came to the brink of extinction.

But in the 1990s, under modern management and using new technologies for breeding and hatching the seed oysters, the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company brought the industry back to life. In 2002, Whitstable oyster beds once again produced a harvest of "Whitstable natives" - locally-raised, quality oysters - for the London market.

Today Whitstable is once more a thriving village, thronged with visitors and DFLs - "Down From Londoners" - as the locals call us, eagerly demolishing plate-loads of delicious oysters, as well as clams, lobsters, and freshly-caught fish, washed down with locally-brewed Whitstable beer.

I am not being overly dewy-eyed. This is not the same clientele that used to come down by charabanc to the seaside, to end a day paddling in the chilly sea with a paper of fish and chips, or a bag of fresh oysters.

It is now the professional classes who choose to spend the weekend in Whitstable, and the hotel prices reflect the change. But the distinctiveness is back, and the local economy is thriving, and - unlike Herne Bay and Margate down the coast - young people have come back to live and work.

I walked on the sand at Whitstable with my husband as dusk fell, last Saturday evening, enjoying the beauty of the sea and looking forward to a dozen of those Whitstable natives - appreciating the local 'terroir', just as the French have always done.

And indeed, if we look a little closer at those charming local museums dotted across France, we notice that the regional products they celebrate also came close to disappearing at the beginning of the last century.

The cork oak trees on which Aquitaine's wine cork manufacture depended were wiped out by a combination of natural disasters in the 1850s, giving way to the distinctive maritime pines we now associate with the French coast.

They turned instead to imported Spanish cork, introduced new techniques and machinery, and production once again flourished. And oyster-production at Bouzigues, just as at Whitstable, almost came to an end around 1900 - until "new technology" was introduced by enterprising local fishermen, in the form of today's wooden frames with their suspended ropes of oysters, nurtured and harvested using modern methods and machinery.

So the French, it turns out, already know how to adapt regional manufacture to altered circumstances and how to embrace the market. They simply need the courage to believe that treasured ways of life will survive the transition from the old ways to the new, whatever the new French presidency brings in the way of economic change.


Send us your comments using the form below.

We have lost a lot of what made life worth while in the UK. Cosy local pubs have been turned into stand-up drinking joints for youth, fish and chips is slowly being ousted by greaseburgers, snug old cafes, symphonies in stainless steel and formica, are being replaced by chain-owned coffee shops. The smoking ban will kill more of these treasured outlets. The French are much more aware of their national identity, and are sufficiently feisty to look after it. Good for them.
Steve Robey, Harwich UK

Frankly I can't wait for the likes of John Jay to go and be a statistic in France, he appears to be a gloomy negative influence on this country and we can do without him. I love my home, the opportunities it affords, the people I meet and the lifestyle I can lead. I certainly don't need France or miserable Mr Jay.
Gavin Thistlethwaite, Cornwall

John Jay says he's off to France as part of some 'white flight' trip. I've been living in London for 10 years and have to say that most of the migration of talent is FROM France to the city of London. (simply because as non-domiciles they don't have to pay any tax)
John, London

I get the impression that Lisa Jardine has never lived outside the UK. The death of the French way of life is not necessarily a bad thing if France changes to be more like the UK? What a presumptuous, if predictable point of view from an English tourist! (Incidentally, in France you can get oysters anywhere in the country; no need to go to the towns of production or to Paris. And the corks come from Portugal, not Spain.)
Dylan White, Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine, France

I love Lisa Jardine's "A Point of View". They are always interesting and put over in an excellent way
Derek Massett, Nailsea , England

As exchange students, our French class travelled to France years ago. We were all struck by the differences between Paris, which we toured first, and the coastal city of La Rochelle, which prided itself on a more traditional way of life.
Candace, New Jersey, US

Walking on the sand at Whitstable? Are you sure you were in the right place? Or have they brought it by the truckload along with the DFLs?
Wendy, Southampton, but formerly near Whitstable

I list myself amongst the throng of those that admire the limpid translucent pool-like poise and delivery of Professor Jardine. But... those qualities should not of themselves be taken to guarantee quality of the analysis thereof. There is a tendency amongst the members of the high literate meritocracy to treat that self-serving category mistake to be self-evidently true. The danger in pointing to this or that atypical re-growth of some tasty tree is that Lisa Jardine [Garden?] overlooks the dreadful state of the UK wood and, indeed, to the terminal state of our global forest under the dictates of market forces.
Stephen Layland, Bristol

I nearly fell off my chair when I heard Lisa Jardine say that: ["Those in France who fear that new measures are bound to destroy a much-loved way of life, might take comfort from us here in Britain."] And ["Here, drastic reforms have given rise to a prosperous, confident nation."] Frankly, I simply can't wait to become a "White Flight" statistic - and look forward to my one-way landing in France just as soon as I can possibly arrange things to that purpose. Vive la France...!!!
John Jay, Walton on Thames UK

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