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
Wednesday 06 October 2010
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
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