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FOOD AND DRINK

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?

From home-made to made in France, organic to artisan, AOP to Red Label - French food and drink products have a bewildering array of different labels and quality marks - here's what they all mean.

Bio, artisan and red label: What do French food and drink labels really mean?
A picture taken on october 18, 2019 shows an European AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protegee - Protected Designation of Origin) logo during the AOP fair in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris. (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)

In France, there are many different types of étiquette to be aware of when purchasing food, drink or other products. However, this étiquette does not have to do with behaviour – rather it is the French word for label or sticker that might designate certain properties about an item being purchased.

Here are some that you might run into while shopping in France:

Wines and other beverages

French wine often has several different designations and labels that you might come across. In France, wine is labelled based on region rather than grape.

Cru – the word “cru” – translated as ‘growth’ – on a wine label signifies that it was grown in high-quality vineyard or growing site, and provides further proof to where the wine was produced. 

Vin Bio – this designates a product, and in this case, wine as being organic. You will also find a bio (pronounced bee-yo) section of fruit and veg in most French supermarkets as well as plenty of other products with a bio label. Most towns and communes regularly host a marché bio –  a market where all the products on sale are organic.

Here is an example of what the label looks like:

Photo Credit: Economie.Gouv.Fr

To be certified as bio, producers must follow a set of EU specifications around how products are grown, which limit the use of chemicals such as fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. The bio brand is a protected mark.

Vin natural – While bio refers to how the grapes are grown, ‘natural wines’ refers to the process of turning the grapes into wine.  

This is more vague than organic as there isn’t an agreed set of standards for what constitutes a ‘natural wine’. Producers label their bottles vin méthode nature (natural wine method) but you’ll also frequently see and hear vin naturel or vin nature to describe these products. In general, it means a wine that has no additives used during the wine-making process and no or few added sulphites, which can mean that natural wines taste different.

Not all organic wines are natural and not all natural wines are made with organic grapes, although the two tend to go together.

Vin biodynamique – Growers who embrace the biodynamic method go a step further and as well as cutting out chemicals they also plant and harvest their crop according to the lunar calendar.

Biodynamic isn’t a protected mark and a biodynamic wine isn’t necessarily organic or natural, but vine growers who go to the trouble of following the lunar calendar are generally pretty committed to producing their product in a more natural way. 

Champagne (capital C) – The sparkling wine known as Champagne can only be produced in the French Champagne region, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. In fact, the Champagne industry has a skilled team of lawyers tasked with insuring that the name “Champagne” is not being used inappropriately or incorrectly. Champagne is a famous example of the French AOC (more on this below).

READ MORE: ‘The price of glory’ – Meet the Champagne industry lawyers charged with protecting the brand name

Geographic designations and traditional techniques

In France, there are three different labels that determine where a product comes from and whether it was made according to certain traditional standards.

L’Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) – This designation can either indicate that a product comes from a specific geographical area or that it was produced following a certain traditional technique. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body.

You can see an example of the label below:

Photo Credit: www.economie.gouv.fr

The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

It is worth keeping in mind that simply being considered an AOC product does not necessarily mean that the quality will be better than a non-AOC product, as it is focused on either geographical location or technique used when cultivating the product. The AOC designation is typically applied to certain wines and cheeses, though it can be extended to other products too.

READ MORE: What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) – the European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

The two labels are pretty much the same, but the AOC is French and older, while the AOP is recognised on a European level. 

In most cases, in order to apply for AOP designation, the product must already have an AOC recognition at the national level and then it is later registered with the European Commission. 

For France, the AOP concerns certain dairy products – specifically, 45 cheeses, 3 butters, and 2 creams – other foods like “Grenoble walnuts” are also listed as AOPs.

As for non French products, Gorgonzola cheese is an example of an Italian AOP.

La Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) – In English this would be referred to as the “Traditional Speciality Guarantee”. This is another European-wide label. It attests that a food product has been manufactured according to a recipe considered traditional.

The first French STG was “Bouchot mussels” which are collected using a traditional aquaculture technique. 

Quality labels

Label rouge – This French label allows you to identify superior quality products. It has been in existence for over 60 years – according to the French ministry of economy, Landes chicken was the first food product to be awarded the label. Label rouge can be applied to food products as well as non-food agricultural products, such as Christmas trees or flowers.

For example, a Christmas tree might qualify for the Label rouge if it is: from the Nordmann or Spruce species, free from parasites (fungi and insects); fitting the proper aesthetic criteria for shape, colour, symmetry and density; and fresh – meaning cut down after November 21st.

Nutri-score – this five letter label designates food products based on their nutritional value. This is regulated by public health authorities. The logo is on packaging and ranges from A (dark green, most nutritious) to E (dark orange, least nutritious).

Artisanale – this is a protected “appellation” (title) that was created in 1998, and it regulates ‘craft’ products according to French law – the most common usages are for bakeries and breweries but it’s used for a wide range of products. 

People running the business must be able to prove a certain relevant education and qualification level and register with the trade organisation or guild for their craft.

For example, bakery owners must register the boulangerie with the Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat and take a preparatory course.

Typically, artisan producers promise to use non-processed materials and they must also follow certain quality rules. For example, bread sold in these artisan boulangeries cannot have been frozen.

French bread and pastry designations

When buying your baguette at the boulangerie, there are some differences to be aware of.

Baguette Tradition – As suggested by the name, this designation means that the baguette was made using the traditional ingredients – only flour, yeast, salt and water. These were decided upon as part of the French government’s ‘bread decree’ of 1993. It also indicates that the baguette is free of any additives or preservatives. 

Baguette – A regular baguette could contain extra ingredients like grains, cereals or nuts – or any chemical additives or preservatives.

Boulanger de France – This label is relatively new in France – it was launched in 2020 in order to help differentiate artisinal bakeries from industrial ones. In order to obtain the label, then the bakery must respect certain quality regulations (eg. salt dosage used in bread, and specific recipes and manufacturing methods). Also, boulangers who apply for this label also commit themselves to favouring seasonal products.

Other French labels you might come across

Fait maison – this means ‘home made’ in French, and the logo for this type of dish looks like a little house.

You might see this label when at a restaurant or when buying food. In essence, it means that the dish was cooked on the spot. It also means that the dish was made with unprocessed ingredients, and that the only processed ingredients are those listed HERE.

Made in France (or Fabriqué en France) – It may be a bit misleading, but the label “Made in France” does not mean that 100 percent of the manufacturing steps for the product were carried out in France, but it signifies that a significant part were indeed done in France. This label is applied primarily to “consumer and capital goods”, but it can also be attributed to certain agricultural, food and cosmetic products, according to the French ministry of economy.

In order to qualify for this label, a part of the French customs body (Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes or DGCCRF) must authorise the label. If a product simply contains colours associated with France or a French flag, that does not necessarily mean it was entirely produced in France.

The penalties for falsely using a “Made in France” label, which are laid out in the French consumer code (article L. 132-2) are up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €300,000, which may be increased, depending on whether there were benefits derived from the offence.

Origine France Garantie – This label is awarded by the “Pro France association” to both  food and non-food products that can prove to have had the majority of manufacturing operations (at least 50 percent of its per unit cost) carried out in France and that the parts of the product that constitute its ‘essential characteristics’ were manufactured and produced in France.

Terre textile – This label attests that at least 75 percent of the textile product’s manufacturing was carried out in the French geographical area that it references – for example the label would indicate a part of France, like Alsace, and then below it would say “Terre textile”. 

Maître restaurateur – Created in 2007, the title of Maître Restaurateur is awarded by the French state to worthy restaurateurs. It is renewable every four years, following an audit by an independent body. The label is based on a set of specifications that combine the chef’s professionalism and qualifications with the freshness and seasonality of the produce and the requirement for entirely “home-cooked” cuisine.

This title, which guarantees the professional skills of the restaurateur, is intended to reward establishments of excellence, from bistros to gourmet restaurants, all of which guarantee authentic cuisine.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

How to tell French politicians apart by their sashes

Need to tell at a glance whether you're looking at a French mayor, town councillor, MP or Senator? No problem - all the details you need are in their 'écharpe tricolore'.

How to tell French politicians apart by their sashes

If you’ve spent much time in France you will be aware that politicians wear a sash in the ‘tricolore’ colours of the French flag on special occasions.

But did you know that how the sash is worn, who else is wearing it and the colour of its fringe will tell you everything you need to know about the person wearing it?

Read on for a deep dive into the wonderful world of ‘écharpe etiquette’. 

Echarpe tricolore

Une écharpe more usually translates as scarf, and the French have gained something of an international reputation as stylish scarf-wearers.

However une écharpe tricolore is what we might refer to as a sash or even a cummerbund.

It’s worn by elected officials – Senators, Députés (members of the lower parliamentary house the Assemblée nationale, equivalent to MPs), mayors, deputy mayors and town council members.

The colours

As the ‘tricolore’ bit suggests, the sash is in the colours of the French flag – blue, white and red.

However – how the sash is worn gives you your first clue as to the wearer. Députés and Senators wear their sashes with the red at the top.

However mayors, deputy mayors and town councillors wear theirs with the blue at the top. 

Left, the sash as worn by a mayor or deputy mayor, centre the sash as worn by a MP or senator and right, the waist option. Photo: Préfecture du Yonne

The fringe

At the end of the scarf is fringing in either gold or silver – MPs, Senators and mayors get gold, while deputy mayors and councillors have to make do with silver fringe. However, if the deputy mayor is standing in for the mayor at an official function, they are permitted to wear the gold.

Shoulder or waist?

You will most commonly see the écharpe worn as a sash over one shoulder (in French en bandoulière) but it is also permitted to wear it en ceinture – around the waist as a belt.

If wearing it sash style, it must be worn over the right shoulder.

If wearing it around the waist, the same rules apply over whether you wear it with the red at the top, or the blue.

When?

Then there’s the question of when the écharpe should be worn, and you may be unsurprised to hear that this is strictly regulated, with the rules for mayors most recently clarified in a decree in the Journal Officiel in 2000.

Local officials wear the sash at public ceremonies and “whenever the performance of their duties may require this distinctive sign of their authority”.

This is why mayors always wear their sash when performing a wedding ceremony, because they are acting as an official of the republic.

The sash “reflects the authority of the State conferred on elected representatives by their status as judicial police officers and civil registrars” in legally binding ceremonies such as weddings.

At public events such as commemorations at war memorials, the sash can only be worn by the mayor – or the deputy mayor if they are filling in for the mayor for the occasion.

MPs and Senators do not wear their sashes for ordinary debate sessions in parliament, but do on ceremonial occasions.

You might also see them wearing the sash as a mark of their position if they are taking part in a public event such as a demonstration. 

Green party MP Sandrine Rousseau attends a demonstration wearing her sash – with the red at the top. Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

Why?

And finally the big question – why do elected officials still wear this rather archaic piece of clothing?

Well apart from the aesthetic consideration that they look rather nice at special events, the écharpe is the only remaining element of the ‘costume des maires’ or mayoral outfit that was introduced when the commune system was put into place in 1790 and made compulsory for mayors in a decree of 1852. 

The traditional outfit of a mayor is dark trousers, a tailcoat with silver frogging, a sword and a bicorn hat with plumes, plus the sash of course. There is no option for women because French women did not get the right to vote or hold office until 1945, and by then the traditional costume had been phased out.

The outfit is not longer compulsory, but in recent years local mayors including the mayor of La Verrière in Yvelines and the mayor of Plouha in Brittany have decided to revive the traditional outfit for ceremonial occasions such as weddings.

So if your dream is to be married by a man wearing a sword, sash and plumed hat – then head to La Verrière or Plouha. (Or Las Vegas, probably). 

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