Bloomsbury £8.99 (248pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Au Revoir to All That, By Michael Steinberger
Friday 23 July 2010
In July 2005, Jacques Chirac uttered a familiar French complaint to Putin: "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad." He was, of course, referring to us, yet earlier that year Gourmet magazine declared London "the best place in the world to eat right now". It cannot be doubted that British food has improved in the last two decades, while French cuisine has declined. Even in the big cities of France, you have to expend effort finding somewhere decent to eat and are liable to pay through the nose for the result.
In this knowledgeable, witty and outspoken book, an American gourmet explores the reasons for the rise and fall of what was once a cuisine without parallel. Escoffier correctly asserted that France was "uniquely blessed" in the quality of its foodstuffs. Steinberger also acknowledges the lineage of great cooks and "a culture of gourmandism" fostered by the Roman Catholic church. It is hard to imagine any other country where the head of state would order a banquet for 30 as his final meal. In 1995, Mitterrand rose from his deathbed and consumed three dozen oysters, foie gras, capon and two illegal ortolans (roast songbirds).
Steinberger assembles a multitude of reasons why food in France has suffered a precipitous descent. Its restaurants are crushed by "onerous tax rates", "crippling labour laws" and "nightmarish... paperwork". Worse still is the lack of invention. France has become a "culinary museum". As they become culinary magnates, top chefs delegate the kitchen to underlings with predictable results. The Michelin star system drives restaurateurs into bankruptcy. Steinberger maintains that France's economic decline is reflected in the vitiation of a once-triumphant food culture.
The view of Joel Rubuchon that "only a small number of French possess refined palates" is supported by the amazing success of McDonald's. France is now its second-most-profitable market. Conversely, the French public has shown itself "largely indifferent" to the disappearance of traditional bistros, brasseries and small food producers. If lovers of French food will find much to tut about in this fine book, they will also find a few shards of optimism. Steinberger raves about the work of Thierry Breton at the modestly-priced Chez Michel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having eaten there himself, this reviewer agrees with all his heart and stomach. There are still reasons for the food lover to hop on the Eurostar.
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