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By Steve Kelman

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Eurozone crisis, luxury consumption

Shortly before resigning in disgrace as the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi famously made a remark that there didn’t seem to be any crisis in Italy, because the restaurants were filled. This does not seem fully to apply to Spain, with its 23 percent unemployment, or even to France, which I am also visiting and which is in better shape than Spain. One of the restaurants I had hoped to eat at while in Barcelona, recommended by the 2009 edition of my Fodor’s guidebook, had closed. A tapas place in Madrid, about which the same guide had said come early or you won’t be able to get a seat for lunch, was largely empty even at 1:30, by which time even the Spanish have begun to sit down for lunch. At 6:30 a Saturday morning, a taxi driver was waiting outside my hotel on the outskirts of Barcelona, patiently hoping for a fare. Nonetheless, luxury consumption is not dead, even in a crisis-hit Eurozone.

Nestle, the Swiss food giant, has in recent years developed a new coffee offering to supplement its longtime megabrand Nescafe, now going downscale and tired except in some developing countries. Called Nespresso, it is a single-serve upscale coffee pouch coming in endless flavors – some of which actually have vintages (!) indicating what year’s coffee crop they come from -- and brewed in striking modernistic for-the-home coffee machines, sold in special stores devoted only to all things Nespresso. (I believe there are now a few of these outlets in the U.S.)

The heart of Barcelona has the largest Nespresso store I have ever seen, with almost 30 counters and a take-a-number system like in deli departments in supermarkets. This monument to consumerism, which features a stupendous variety of gorgeous coffee brewing machines for sale, was very crowded when I went inside a weekday afternoon. Sales were brisk. One theory, I understand, is that these gourmet coffees are an affordable pleasure for people who can’t afford other pleasures – my understanding is that Starbucks sales held up well during the U.S. economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 for the same reason. (The Starbucks in Spain, although not ever-present as in some other countries, are also extremely crowded.)

The French daily Le Figaro ran a story about the continued sales growth of Hennessy cognac, still managed by the family of the Irishman Richard Hennessy who began the brand, though now owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH, which also owns Louis Vuitton, probably Asia’s most iconic French brand. One thing I learned from the article is its status among black musicians, starting with the jazz legend Miles Davis, who preferred it to Scotch, which he regarded as a white drink, and continuing through rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z. In the last decade, U.S. sales of Hennessy have increased from 600,000 to 2 million cases a year, and each year the town of Cognac, France, where Hennessy is made, has a Blues Passion festival including blues and rap.

I had dinner in Paris in a trendy restaurant called Bistrot Paul Bert, which has sparked a foodie renaissance on a street of the same name in the downscale Paris neighborhood around Place de la Nation. It was a Saturday evening, and, not surprisingly perhaps, the restaurant was filled. My hotel had told me they had called the hotel and told them I’d be an hour late for my reservation, but when I arrived, the restaurant knew nothing of such a supposed phone call, but they let me sit by myself at a sort of small bar right where the maitre d’ welcomed new guests.

I was surprised how many people – mostly Americans – arrived without reservations, hoping to get tables. But I was also amused by a scene I never would have seen had I not been sitting at this small bar. This very French restaurant, of course, serves nothing but wine, French bottled waters, and some liquors to drink. However, at one point when things were quiet I noticed the maitre d’ stealthily take a big plastic bottle of Coke out from under the bar, inconspicuously pour some into a glass, and proceed to drink it up, in successive gulps, over the next few minutes.

Posted on Apr 17, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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