Bargain-hunters in a grocery store northeast of Paris squint as they scan figures stamped on shrink-wrapped chunks of Gruyere and bags of green olives. They're not zeroing in on the price, certain to be low in a place that specializes in surplus goods offloaded from big-name supermarket chains. They want the "use by" date.
Just one day remains before the cheese is past its prime. The olives have just crossed their "too-old" threshold. And shoppers are snapping them up.
Buying expired food sounds like culinary blasphemy in a place like France, where many already fear the cherished art of preparing and indulging in a good meal - so central to the nation's image of itself - is slowly evaporating. In France as elsewhere, cheaper and faster nourishment has long been gaining on the slow-roasted, lovingly basted, passionately whipped kind.
Now, the recession is hitting especially hard those whose belts were already tight, and pulling them in to dozens of markets like this one around France that specialize in "destockage alimentaire," or food de-stocking, reselling leftovers from mainstream stores at a deep discount.
Customers at this shop in Argenteuil aren't the only ones counting the centimes they spend on food. A Parisian shop peddling "anti-crisis" sandwiches for one euro (about US$1.30) is doing brisk business. Even Michelin-starred chefs have hints for thrifty eating in the land of haute cuisine.
"The food here is cheaper, that's why I come," said Marie-Therese Capria, a teacher's aide who takes a bus from a neighboring town to shop at two food outlets in Argenteuil and estimates that she saves about 10 euros (about US$13) a week.
The experience of examining expiration dates, she says, is not so far from that at French open-air produce markets, where vendors often ask, "When do you want to eat this?"
"If you say 'tonight,' they give you the ripest melon," she said.
Food safety authorities say she has little to worry about, and that markets like those in Argenteuil are no riskier than mainstream supermarkets.
They note a key distinction: Perishable goods such as milk can cause food poisoning if consumed after their expiration dates, while chips and conserved foods such as olives and "become less crunchy or lose a bit of flavor, but are not dangerous," said Sylvie Garnier of the government food inspection agency DGCCSF.
Crisis or no, "consumers in France are among the best-protected in the world from food risks," she insisted.
France's industry leader in food de-stocking is a company called Noz, which opened its first market in 1976 and now has some 160 around France. Sales have jumped 20 percent over the past year, said CEO Remy Adrion.
"It has always been a good business model, we are seeing it now," he said.
He maintains that Noz has done consistently good business and is cashing in on the crisis by chance.
A new sandwich shop near Paris' Opera Garnier is doing so by design
Goutu, where most sandwiches cost one euro, opened in January to meet what its owners predicted would be growing demand for low-cost calories in a high-cost neighborhood. The narrow, spare shop sells about 2,000 sandwiches a week - fillings range from standard ham to creamed fish roe - and they're planning three more in Paris in the next three months.
Owners of more traditional French restaurants fear the crisis will push diners into the embrace of places like Goutu, or McDonald's. They are hoping a new EU law allowing lower restaurant taxes will help them keep clientele.
Grab-a-sandwich lunches have been on the rise in French cities for years, replacing the multi-course meals once de rigueur everywhere from the kitchens of the working class to the dining halls of the ruling class.
Michelin-starred chef Jacques Pourcel isn't resisting the sandwich wave but riding it. He led the judging panel as eight chefs sliced, diced, chopped, grilled and smoked their way through an international sandwich competition in Paris last month. British chef Seth Ward took the title, enticing the jury's appetite with his "Red Ruby" beef baguette, garnished with a celery remoulade, garlic paste, mayonnaise and fried shallots.
Pourcel remained upbeat about the downturn's effects on French plates and palates.
"During all crises, there is always a return to values - family values, work values but also the value of good food" - even if it's stuffed inside a baguette, he said.
"Crisis menus" are popping up in restaurants around Paris, as chefs drop prices once a week to keep customers. Even high-end establishments are joining in: La Maison Blanche on Paris' Tony Avenue Montaigne has a "New Deal Menu," a prix fixe meal for 69 euros including cocoa-dusted foie gras and grilled Coquilles St. Jacques.
Carrefour, the world's second biggest retailer after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and France's biggest supermarket chain, is reportedly considering a new brand of low-cost generic products.
But some shoppers say that's not enough.
Anti-capitalist protesters have been staging free-for-all picnics in recent months in French supermarkets, filling up carts with store goods, emptying their contents onto a folding table, and then eating them. They encourage other shoppers to join in.
But they don't pay for a thing. Their aim: to nibble away at the stores' corporate profits and protest prices they say are too high.
France's president is loath to let France's culinary reputation succumb to recession. Nicolas Sarkozy wants French cuisine protected by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency - while there's still something left to preserve.
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