VIVE LE FRENCH CUISINE
May 23, 2011 18 Comments
I am starting to believe strongly that the days when France could lay claim to the greatest cuisine in the world may have passed away. I am sure that it was mostly true 30 years ago when we first started coming to France but sadly things seem to have changed. I accept that the French Michelin star restaurants are still amongst the best in the world, but even there France is slipping, as in 2010 Paris with 64 Michelin stars in total actually had fewer than Tokyo (266), Kyoto (243) and Hong Kong (69).
Our first trip together to Europe from Australia in 1981 started in London, and I have to say that the food generally was absolutely appalling, whether it was in an expensive restaurant, a pub or an ethnic eatery. We were there for a week and did not have a single memorable meal.
We flew over to Paris, picked up a rental car at Charles De Gaulle airport and headed for Brittany where we had rented a Gite for 2 weeks in the small village of Landudec, not far from the delightful Breton town of Quimper. We stopped for fuel at a service station on a main road heading west, and hunger drove us into the café attached. The food was wonderful. Fresh baguette with homemade preserves, yoghurts, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, spectacular cheeses served with good wine, the sort of fresh, uncomplicated food that it was obvious the British had never heard of.
The food that we found in our two weeks in Brittany was so good that we still talk about it today 30 years later. Fresh caught langoustines served with aioli, fresh bread and a crisp white wine were considered a standard lunch and the abundant lobster and seafood of all descriptions were fresh, never overcooked, plentiful and inexpensive. The odds worked in our favour wherever we went, even when back in Paris on the way home. If you found a restaurant that was full of locals, particularly workers or families, the chances were that the food would be excellent, and the menu of the day cheap and interesting.
Unfortunately things have changed.
We now live permanently in France and while you can still get good food at reasonable prices, (see Vive le French Cheap and Cheerful posted on September 9, 2010) you really have to know where to go, as the odds are stacked against you. Many eateries (I hesitate to use the word restaurants) don’t employ a chef and don’t even bother any more with actually doing any cooking, preferring instead to buy pre-prepared food from supermarkets like Carrefour and just warming it up with indiscriminate micro-waving.
The sad thing is that it appears that the French really don’t seem to care, young people being happy to grab a McDonalds on the run, and the French generally turning away from the culinary habits that made them the envy of foodies around the world.
Even the culture of home-cooking has suffered, as has how the French treat their time “a table” which has dropped from about 90 minutes per meal 25 years ago to about 40 minutes today. Unfortunate too is the fact that the French have actually embraced McDonalds with a fervour rarely seen anywhere else in the world, and once reserved only for French delicacies such as foiegras, boudin noir and escargot.
The news gets worse.
From about 200,000 cafes nationally in the early 1960s, today that number is closer to 40,000, and dropping annually, many blaming this on the cost of over-unionised, expensive staff and mind numbing, micromanaging bureaucracy as much as on the diminishing patronage from locals. The number of Brasseries and Bistros are declining in the same way. The French wine industry is struggling as locals drink less, and the French Village markets are dwindling as the French, like the Americans, now buy most of their food in Supermarkets (75% in 2010).
The amazing thing is that England is now a better bet for good food, and I believe that you have a significantly better chance of spontaneously stumbling across a memorable meal in London today than you do in Paris.The English seem to have been discovering the joys of the culinary world with passion and imagination, as quickly as the French are losing them. Cooking shows on TV in England have the highest of viewing audiences and cooking schools like Leiths in London have no problems filling their classes mainly with locals, whereas most of the attendees at French cooking schools are foreigners. Ethnic restaurants in London serve authentic dishes rather than bastardising them for local tastes, as for example do Indian restaurants in Paris, which add so much cream to, and remove so much spice from their dishes, as to make them unrecognisable. English Pubs serve interesting and well-cooked food with a decent selection of wine, and there is a strong re-emergence of “Cuisine Anglaise”, driven by restaurants such as St. Johns in Smithfield and Hereford Road in Notting Hill in London.
The Borough Market in Southwark Street has the sort of produce, meats, food, restaurants and cafes that the declining numbers of French market goers can only dream about, and the growing number of farm shops and farmers’ markets around the English countryside (such as Daylesford) are a delight to visit.
The world is being turned on its head when it comes to the love of good food, and the old joke of Hell having English chefs is starting to sound decidedly heavenly.