France is having to pull out the stops to help foodies distinguish homemade dishes from industrial fare in restaurants, despite its elaborate culinary tradition on UNESCO's cultural heritage list.
In a country where the mere publication of food guides triggers full-blown media storms, authorities this week launched a "homemade" label for French eateries following complaints that these were increasingly passing off boil-in-a-bag or microwaved ready meals as restaurant-quality fare.
The "homemade" moniker -- once casually flaunted on menus for fares such as terrine or desserts that had actually been shipped in from outside -- will now be subject to checks that could land a restaurant owner in jail for two years or with a fine of up to 300,000 euros ($406,000).
"The label does not resolve all the problems but a part of the battle has been won: it will allow to distinguish those who re-heat vacuum-packed stuff from others who cook," said Stephane Cordier, co-founder of Parisian restaurant Medi Terra Nea.
A survey commissioned by restaurant and hotel workers union Synhorcat a year ago found that a third of eateries said they used industrial products in their kitchens.
Top chef Alain Ducasse believes the situation is even worse: he told AFP last year that out of France's 150,000 restaurants, three-quarters only served up industrial food.
But the move aimed at preserving France's cherished reputation as a bastion of gastronomy is not foolproof, many complain.
"I think the restaurant owners will resort to underhand means to continue their practices," said Nathalie Dadue, 34, a client at a Paris brasserie.
"The label will also make people wrongly believe that it is going to revolutionise the contents of our plates."
- Elaborate gastronomic rituals -
France's culinary tradition made it to the UNESCO intangible heritage listing in 2010 as part of the body's efforts to protect traditional practices in the same way it tries to watch over sites of cultural value or great natural beauty.
French gastronomy is famed for its elaborate rites and presentation: how wines are paired with dishes, how the table is laid out and so-called "degustation" which refers to the careful appreciative tasting of various foods and wine.
And naturally the quality of the dishes themselves is high on the list.
Much of the decree implementing the new "homemade" label centres on what products can be used -- and how -- to qualify for the logo.
Raw products that have already been frozen, refrigerated, cut up, ground, smoked, or peeled by the time they are delivered to the restaurant, apart from potatoes, qualify for the distinction.
"Frozen chips for example are not part of this decree. That means that those used by fast-food restaurants will not be considered homemade, just like sauces that arrive ready-made will not be considered homemade," Consumer Affairs Minister Carole Delga told AFP.
Exceptions are made for some prepared dish ingredients such as bread, pasta, cheese and wine.
But the rules have raised eyebrows, as customers usually expect their chef to cook with fresh vegetables that he or she has cut, not frozen, pre-chopped fare.
But Cordier justified the move, saying that some pre-cut vegetables and frozen meat had to be authorized as these can be seasonal.
He took the delicacy pata negra as an example, explaining that the black Iberian pigs from which the ham is made are slaughtered just once a year in the winter, after they have fattened up on acorns that start falling from oak trees in the autumn.
"If one wants them on the menu cards all year, it (pata negra) has to be frozen," he said, adding that vegetables that are already cut in cubes help chefs gain time and reduce the price of dishes.
- 'Bogus decree' -
But JP Gene, the culinary expert at the M magazine of leading French daily Le Monde, dismissed the homemade logo as a "bogus decree."
"When I discovered the decree, I understood that the die had been cast and the agro-business lobby had won: all raw products that are frozen can be included in a homemade dish."
The decree is part of a broader effort to stop what many see as the declining standards of France's famed restaurants.
In April last year, the College Culinaire de France -- a 15-member industry group founded by the country's leading chefs -- launched a new "quality restaurant" label awarded to eateries that meet top cooking and service standards.