I was interested to discover among my late mother's neatly rubber-banded set of Smythson diaries a nifty, ultra-thin volume called Sheila Chichester's London Woman. It is certainly - as its deliciously archaic and evocative items such as "shopping for a man" indicate - well dated. But its gastronomical listing, prepared by a "connoisseur" is very revealing. Nearly all its recommendations are to London's posh hotels, or to restaurants which one might call "in the French tradition". Such places are described as "smart" or "elegant", and it is a presumption of the guide that if London was capable of providing food acceptable to a fashionable lady, it was bound to be French.
The French complaint is about price and over-invention. And indeed, the food-writing business (and it is, believe me, a major industry) has done as much to lower food standards (by over-praise of the indifferent) as it has to raise them, by inducing its presumed public to be somewhat more adventurous. Food in France is expensive: how can it not be with VAT at 20.5 per cent? And there are certainly a lot of young crazies about who think invention is simply the yoking of opposites: turnips in custard, kiwis in fish and the like.
On the other hand, the food the French are complaining about is the kind of food that gets written about, while my exploration was confined to what the French eat, mainly at lunch, in unfashionable districts, and at a reasonable price (say, pounds 15 with wine). And though my recent visit was of less than a week, I am happy to report that ordinary French food is in its usual healthy condition, and sometimes in excellent shape.
Now, it is an unwise eater who thinks he ought to be wowed every time he eats out. But if you don't expect too much, one can certainly get excellent value in Paris, and I'm not at all sure that, in this middle range, this is as true in London as in Paris.
Take, for instance, a restaurant called Les Fleurs on the un-chic Boulevard Daumesnil. Its owner is from the Berry, and the menu has a pronounced woodland flavour: fresh girolle mushrooms to start, an excellent double lamb chop stuffed with herbs and cooked en croute, good cheeses (and a rich Saumur red) on one night; lamb kidneys another - good, simple stuff, well turned-out, in a small restaurant where I would guess nine out of ten customers were both locals and habitues. Nothing wrong with that.
The Ambassade d'Auvergne, a block or two from the Pompidou Centre - two floors in one of the many surviving old buildings - is a bit more up-market (because of where it is, in an area of outrageously high rents) but also thoroughly traditional, with an accent on Auvergnat dishes. We had a richly flavoured boudin noir or blood sausage laid on a bed of chestnuts, with its traditional accompaniment of sweet apples in tiny slices: satisfying for offal-lovers. But I have to emphasise that innovation can creep into even such a traditional restaurant. We preceded our boudin with a wonderfully rich cabbage soup, and the discovery here was the transformation wrought in such a humble dish by the addition of some crumbled Roquefort.
There is an argument about middling restaurants which goes something like this: that if one eats out, one should also expect to learn something which one can apply to one's own cooking. What happens in fancy restaurants is rarely applicable - too labour-intensive or ingredients too expensive - to the home; but what happens in ordinary restaurants one should watch and recycle in the home. I'd never had a lamb chop en croute and never thought of adding Roquefort to a soup (though, why not, if one adds Parmesan to the humblest minestra?) Now I plan to cook bothReuse content