John Lichfield: An exaggerated tale of two cuisines


Here is a recipe for "grenouille cognée" or bashed frog. Take a news event. Exaggerate and misinterpret. Repeat at frequent intervals.

We, les anglais, love to say that French food is not what it is reputed to be; that French wine is poor and overpriced; that French cuisine has these days lost its way.

Some of this is true. Taken as a whole, it is tedious and misleading. Two recent events have produced another volley of frog-food bashing in Britain. First, Unesco declared that the ritual of the detailed, French, festive meal should be listed as part of the "intangible" cultural heritage of humanity. Second, Japan, according to the 2011 Michelin Guide, now has as many three-star restaurants as does France.

Cue sniggering in Britain. Unesco wrong; Michelin right. French food is "overpraised and overpriced" etc. British restaurants "now better than French" etc etc.

Unesco did not say that French cuisine was supreme, only that the ritual of the family or festive meal in France was an important contribution to human civilisation (whatever that means). Several of the three-starred Michelin restaurants in Japan are French, not Japanese. The whole business of star rating of restaurants by Michelin has, in any case, fallen into disrepute.

No matter. Almost any reference to French food has nowadays become an excuse for the boil-in-the-bag reheating of clichés in Britain. As a result, Francophiles, rising to speak for the defence, sometimes feel obliged to over-egg their own pudding.

At its most rarefied level, French haute cuisine can be fussy and disappointing. There may now be a handful of high-priced restaurants in London which are as good as, or better than, the top restaurants in Paris. I haven't eaten in them, but I am prepared to believe it. The great difference between the two countries – and between France and almost any other country, except Belgium or Spain – is the quality of the general run of medium or low-priced restaurants.

French provincial cooking traditions have been eroded in some areas, but are thriving in others. You can go wrong in France, but with a little care, you can still eat well, without applying for a loan from the IMF, almost anywhere. That is not true in Britain, and it is not true in Italy or Switzerland or Germany or the US.

On a recent visit to London I had 90 minutes to eat before my Eurostar back to Paris. I searched the streets around King's Cross in vain for somewhere to eat that was pleasant and not absurdly expensive. I ended up in an Italian restaurant which was moderately priced and disgusting. Within five minutes' walk of the Gare du Nord in Paris, meanwhile, you have a half-dozen reasonably priced and decent brasseries.

Of course, times are changing in France. The street next to my office in Paris is now lined with overpriced and poor sandwich bars. A couple of years ago my favourite local restaurant vanished overnight. I have, mercifully, discovered nearby the kind of jewel that is rarer in Paris than it should be: an unassuming, modestly priced, local café, where the food is consistently excellent.

For €18.50, you get two courses and a coffee. An official whom I invited there this week said the dessert was the "best I have eaten in five years". If you happen to be hungry and near the Champs Elysées, try Café Berri, 19 Rue du Berri.

Does Le Metro need a Ken of its own?

On the other hand...

When I first came to Paris, almost 14 years ago, I wrote an article glorifying the Metro and excoriating the London Tube.

I had just spent four years of mournful nights stranded at Earl's Cout waiting for District Line trains that never came. By comparison I found the Metro wonderfully clean, frequent, reliable and cheap.

A decade ago I was with a group of journalists who spent a few minutes at the Tuileries station in Line One of the Metro with Ken Livingstone, who had just been elected mayor of London. Ken looked on in astonishment as the Metro trains entered the station at 30-second intervals (I always suspected that the RATP had diverted every train in Paris that way for the occasion.)

In any case, on my recent London trip, I was astonished to discover how much the Tube has improved in the last decade (mostly thanks to Ken Livingstone's reforms and investments during his time as mayor). The London Underground is still very expensive compared to the Metro, but has become clean, frequent and reliable. When I returned to Paris, and took the Metro, I found that I had to detour via the Left Bank to get home.

Line One was, yet again, closed after 11pm. This is part of an interminable upgrade which has left many of the stations on the busiest line in Paris half-dismantled, dark and filthy for the last five years or more.

Return again Livingstone and gloat.

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat

On the other hand – Part 2...

I may defend French food, but I do draw the line at foie gras. To kill animals humanely for food is one thing. To torture animals to improve the taste of the food is, morally, indefensible.

Foie gras is produced by force-feeding 12-week-old geese and ducks with grain until their livers swell to eight times their normal size. The creatures live in agony for three weeks until their livers are judged to have become large enough, and exquisite enough, to eat.

Most French foie gras producers no longer nail the birds' feet to the floor to force feed them, as was once the custom. They strap them into special machines instead.

This is considered to be progress.

Quick, the Belgian and French fast-food chain, is offering a special Christmas treat to the French this year: a "foie gras burger", that is, a hamburger with a small portion of foie gras, for only €5 a time.

Shame on them.