Is French cuisine dead?

It's the undisputed home of gastronomic excellence. But can Gallic cooking still cut the mustard – or is it living on past glories? Two leading food writers argue the case


Yes, says Rosie Boycott, writer, campaigner and chair of London Food

Authentic French cuisine has become emblematic of the grandeur of France. Of course you can still get proper French food in Michelin-starred restaurants, but these really only exist in places where tourists are. I dined at La Mirande in Avignon this summer and it was divine. You couldn't fault it. But it was expensive and there were almost no French people in there – the diners were almost all Americans.

Real French food has died. If you think about it, what one always used to love about France was the ability to go to any old place and have an amazing meal. These are the places that have disappeared. My cousin lives in Gascony and we went out for lunch in the restaurant in her local village recently and, as ever, it was absolutely beautiful – sunny, warm and idyllic. But the soup wasn't just bad – it was inedible. In other used-to-be wonderful local cafés, the steaks are now tough and the omelettes like soggy chamois leather. There's no doubt that something has really sagged in terms of French home cooking.

Even the markets are more lacklustre than they were. Again, where my cousin lives is typical. The market isn't on very often on any more and when it is, there are fewer people, fewer stalls, fewer cheeses and fewer fresh vegetables. The towns aren't self-sufficient in terms of food now. I stayed in Burgundy recently in a really nice little town and all it had was two patisseries and two butchers and that was it. There was nowhere to get vegetables and nowhere to get fish.

The supermarkets are big and awful, too – not at all enterprising. For me, Sainsbury's is a great deal better than Carrefour and there's no equivalent of Waitrose or M&S. Then there's the rise of fast food. Huge great McDonald's now sit in the middle of some city squares and French chains like Flunch strike me as pretty dire. It's as if the innovation has gone from French food. The heart has gone out of it and it hasn't evolved.

Regional British cooking, on the other hand, has evolved a great deal. I've lived a lot of my life in the West Country and there are an unbelievable number of good local cheeses now. A new one appears every week. We have local hams, local sausages, local pies, local pâtés – and they are sparky and different and on-the-move. Energy is what keeps cooking going and this just doesn't exist in France anymore. Everyone used to say that if you went to eat in most places in England, you'd end up with greasy fish and chips or old ham in between thin white bread, but you can go to pretty much any English pub now and get something pretty good – a locally made pasty, pie or soup or something that's home-made – whereas my latest visit to French local cafés involved no good meals at all.

I couldn't tell you why it's happened. One view is that ever since they stopped making lunch a taxable perk for travelling salesmen about 10 years ago, the numbers eating in roadside cafés dwindled so much that standards fell. It could also be because people have less leisure time so they don't use cafés in the same way, which was such a rich part of French culture. The creeping dominance of supermarkets must be to blame, too – we all get trapped into that kind of convenience shopping.

This isn't about the British putting down the French. That's rubbish. Everyone learns to cook on French cooking – it's the heart of cooking. That's why it's all so sad. But you never know – there might be a revival. We got complacent about food in Britain and have now regained interest in a big way.

No, says Jonathan Meades, writer, television presenter and resident of France

France is an agrarian country. There are 750,000 farms but only 950,000 farm workers, meaning most are small-scale, highly specialised and non-industrial. So what you wind up with is far greater production of meat, vegetables and cereals than anywhere else in Europe. Also in France's favour is the climate, which, south of the Loire, is very precipitous and great for everything from peaches to melons to tomatoes to courgettes.

Then there's the hunting. It's not like in England where a bunch of toffs shoot pheasants. In France, people shoot for the pot because it's free food and this isn't stuff raised for shooting – it's wild animals.

In short, there's an attitude to food that is central to French culture. You see it at the moment, with people looking for mushrooms or picking berries and sloes, and you see it all the time in French home cooking where every part of the animal is used from the kidneys to spleen. There is an elemental contact between food and people. That has not changed. Nor has the extreme freshness of French food. I can't remember who said it but the French judge freshness in hours, the English judge it in weeks.

Another important factor about France is extreme localism. I live 40 miles outside Bordeaux and one of the classic dishes is chitterlings, cooked in a particular way. When I asked a butcher 45 miles away, he'd never heard of it. So yes, there's probably a smaller gamut of dishes in any one place – albeit with many variations – but they are cooked with produce of quality which is unimaginable outside France.

As for supermarkets, they are franchised, which makes the quality of produce so much better. You get grand distribution of things like toothpaste, but one branch of a supermarket chain will have a different range of tinned sardines to another and the butchery is completely local. I live between three towns and the supermarkets have completely different things. Compare this to England, where fish caught in Hastings goes to a central place and then back to Hastings. There is such pride in local food in France and you get that in Britain, too, but only for a tiny proportion of the population. English supermarkets seem pathetic compared to those in France.

When it comes to high-end restaurants, Paris has stagnated while London has massively improved. But I don't see the need to eat in top restaurants when you have such good local ones – and at local level, if you compare Bordeaux with Bristol there's no contest. I spent a lot of time going round Britain making films, and locations were not chosen with food in mind. In Salisbury, about the best you can do is Pizza Express.

Tourist restaurants in France can be poor. I was in Marseilles recently and there are a huge number of restaurants in the port area – some good, some bad. But the Marseilles people eat in the suburbs. With tourist restaurants, it doesn't matter if people don't return, while those further out know if they fail to impress, they will fail.

There are no fashions in French food. There isn't even much evolution. People eat what their grandparents did. But while art always has to be different, craft should always be the same and cooking is craft.



Rosie Boycott and Jonathan Meades will debate the motion "French cuisine is a spent force" on 12 October at King's Place, King's Cross, London N1, as part of the London Restaurant Festival. www.londonrestaurantfestival.com

Interviews by Kate Hilpern

News
people
News
people And here is why...
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsWelsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence