Bon appetit: French hunker down to eat their way through pandemic

Fiachra GIBBONS, Natalie HANDEL
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Pensioner Bernadette Jeanpierre was aghast at the thought of buying a supermarket loaf that might last a few days. "I would rather die. That is not bread"

The streets may be empty, with police stopping those who dare to venture outside, but the coronavirus is leaving the French art of eating well unscathed.

"A nice cut of quality beef, some goat's cheese and a good wine," said civil servant Cyrille, contemplating his lunch as he queued in the sun outside the Bellevilloise butcher shop in eastern Paris.

"La vie est belle (life is good)," he said with a smile of his forced holiday, all the sweeter since he can eat on his balcony now spring has come early to the French capital.

Trips out to buy food are among the few exceptions permitted during the tight lockdown -- and the food-loving French are taking full advantage.

The small bakeries, cheese shops, delicatessens and charcuteries that dot French high streets have been doing a roaring trade since the country went into lockdown on Tuesday.

The pandemic is no excuse not to live well, was the message from this nation of gourmets.

With restaurants closed, social media is abuzz with people sharing images of the sumptuous meals they have prepared at home as well as recipes for using up all the ingredients they had panic bought.

- Baguette or bust -

Comedian Jeremstar joked that he was looking forward to putting on 29 kilos (64 pounds) during his confinement.

Despite the shutdown, some things are sacred. Pensioner Bernadette Jeanpierre could not contemplate life without fresh baguettes.

She starts her day by getting one from her local "Au 140" boulangerie and picks up another still warm from the oven in the evening, she told AFP as she waited in line outside with her grandson, observing the strict two-metre social distancing.

She was aghast at the thought of buying a supermarket loaf that might last a few days. "I would rather die. That is not bread."

With only "essential" food outlets and pharmacies allowed to stay open, there has been heated debate about whether wine shops were indispensable for civilised French life to continue.

While many shut, some "cavistes" (wine shop managers), like Cecile Mezzanotte of Cavavin at Malakoff on the southern edge of Paris, insist they are providing an essential service.

"My customers are really happy that I have stayed open," albeit with reduced hours, she told AFP.

"I really feel it's helping... I can see their pleasure when they see I'm open, it brings a little bit of joy and laughter back" in these difficult times, she added.

- No touching -

To limit the chance of infection, Mezzanotte asks customers not to touch the bottles and accepts payment only by contactless credit cards.

Several greengrocers have imposed a similar policy.

Wine merchant Sandrine Chaneac in the well-heeled southeastern suburb of Saint-Mande was letting only one customer at a time into her shop for the same reason, while saying it would be wrong to deprive people of good wine, especially in a time of crisis.

"Cavistes and their customers have a special relationship of trust" which builds up over the years, she said, allowing that people from other countries may not fully appreciate the bond.

"I know their tastes, and I can suggest interesting wines that will please and surprise them even on a budget," she added.

Yet there were signs Thursday that the initial insouciance may be fraying as the French are beginning to realise that the lockdown could be lengthy.

At the Bellevilloise butcher shop, a masked cashier sat before a temporary plastic screen to ward off customers' germs, disinfecting her protective gloves after each sale.

With further restrictions likely, people seem less willing to go out to shop.

"Yesterday they were queuing around the block here," said customer Selim Akkoc at the Ibrahim halal butcher shop in multicultural Couronnes. "Today I walked straight in. There is no one."

The Chez l'Auvergnat cheese shop a few kilometres away was preparing to batten down the hatches for a prolonged shutdown.

"We are going to close up once we have sold the stock," said fromageur Mickael.

"People have bought enough to keep them going for weeks, and there are fewer and fewer around every day now."