France has had a shaky relationship with burgers. From the infamous 1999 bulldozing of a half-built McDonalds by an irate French farmer, to the monument of silliness that is the db Burger at Daniel Boulud's db Bistro Moderne. In fact, I can't pinpoint exactly where, but I believe that I myself have gone on record in the past as stating that a French chef will simply never understand an American hamburger.
But what happens when America's biggest fast food chain tries to go all French on their signature sandwiches?
That's what they're doing this summer in McDonald's in France, serving a rotating menu of burgers with such francophile toppings as caramelized onions or black pepper and saucisson sec.
Now, this is McDonald's we're talking about, so as far as American burgers go, we're starting at pretty close to the bottom of the heap. I'd be interested to see what the French flavors can add to the party. For the next few weeks, the burger of the moment is topped with a slice of honest-to-goodness AOC Comté cheese, along with a "sauce au Comté fondu." Promising sounding improvements for the standard McDonald's patty.
And an improvement it is. I'm generally impressed with the quality of fast food outside of the United States. For some reason, it seems that employees in foreign McDonald's take more pride in their work, producing sandwiches that compare favorably to the tall, proud models that line the windows and menu boards. My Comté burger comes out of its box a near carbon-copy of the image on the box cover, with a fully melted slice of Comté cheese, a couple of tomato slices peeking out, a well-browned patty, a flour-dusted bun, and a good amount of the Comté fondu sauce showing its face as well.
Biting into it revealed a pleasantly moist sandwich. The beef itself was unspectacular—what can you expect?—but between the cheese and the sauce, there was plenty of flavor and fat going on between the surprisingly soft and giving bun. If there's one thing that I noticed throughout my trip in Franche-Comté, it's that the bread was consistently awesome. Even the bread at McDonald's was a significant improvement over their traditional bun. Flavorful and substantial without being overwhelming or too tough.
If there's one complaint to be made, it's that the Comté fondu sauce tastes more like Heinz Salad Cream than anything else. Not a bad thing for a burger, but a little misleading. I was expecting something winey, cheesy, and intense. Instead, I got tangy mayonnaise.
Our intrepid fast food reporter John Edwards claims that "whoever says McDonald's in Europe is radically better than the US is drinking their own Kool-Aid. Well Mr. Edwards, I too have sipped the Kool-Aid, et ça change tout.