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).

By: Trou; via Wikimedia Commons

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).

Bistro 1900, Paris, France; By Croquant (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Roast bone marrow as served at Fergus Henderson's St John restaurant, London; Author: Simon Doggett; via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Borough Market taken by C Ford (GFDL); via Wikimedia Commons

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.


  1. JB Ex Xerox says:

    Les, i couldn’t agree more about the pro’s of English food. Joe Peters and i had a very memorable trip to “the old dart” a few years back and enjoyed virtually every example of the meals. From pubs to the more erudite eateries…Still one of my favs is the food hall at Harrods – heaven.

  2. leshayman says:

    Next time you have to try the Borough Market in London … mouth watering !! Les

  3. Nickie says:

    Hi Les
    Maybe the “cock ‘o’ Bones was a self fulfilling prophesy
    bon appetit
    Regards Scott

    • leshayman says:

      Scott, I think you are right …. either “Cock o Bones” or “Crock of …”.
      By the way I would also put Sydney as a great place to eat above Paris. Les

  4. Ian Couper says:

    Wow Les! A touch of familiarity breeds contempt n’est pas!! .

    One of the main things I like about restaurants in France is that they all offer ‘les menus’ which gives the opportunity to eat several/many courses to suite one’s hunger and/or pocket. Particularly the lunchtime ‘menu of the day’ with a starter, main, desert and wine included at a nice local restaurant takes some beating in terms of cost and quality to match. Yes, this concept does exist in the UK but is nothing like as wide spread.

    I like eating out in the UK and I agree the standard has massively improved but I often struggle to munch my way through typical UK size portions of starter, main and pudding good as they are!!

    Over to you….. !

    • leshayman says:

      Ian … I also love the French menu prices and choices, but the point I am making is that you have to know where to go, rather than just hoping on a chance find. That is what has changed negatively over the last 10+ years in France, and positively in England. Les

  5. ginny says:

    Well done Les, I certainly enjoyed this one, and do so agree with you.
    In those early days of French trips in the 50’s and 60’s you could go into rundown markets at Port St.Cloud
    and eat genuine good basic food laced with garlic, for a song, washed down with some ‘vin ferrose’
    not to be found in England, but all that has changed as you say, and now you find better pub food in all the Gastro Pubs in the countryside in England than in the Bistros in ‘our’ mutual area, and far cheaper too
    since the Euro. What a shame. Lets hope the French pull up their ‘chosettes’


    • leshayman says:

      Thanks for your support Ginny as this is an area where I consider you a true “maven”. It is sad to see it happen, particularly when the culinary standard started at such a high level. Les

  6. Dominic says:

    At last – other people are noticing the ever reducing standard in France. I have had this theory ever since I was offered a vinaigrette from a sachet in what was not a cheap restaurant about eight years ago. I thought I was the only one as no one seemed to agree.
    I have this theory why London food has so much improved – it is partly because there is a lot of (international) money to pay for it and partly because we have a narrow cuisine in the UK ourselves – so opening up the market to all nationalities to have a go. Rather like the wine – not having our own – we embrace all comers.
    I suspect that outside London it is a different story – good spots but hard to find.

  7. leshayman says:

    Hi Dom, Vinaigrette from a sachet, truffle sauce from a test tube not a truffle, reconstituted boiled egg by the metre … it’s all about cutting costs and taking chefs out of the picture, rather than keeping alive the culture of good food and a meal as an event rather than just eating as fuel intake. Les

  8. Well, as far as I know there are still plenty of delicious restaurants in France where the food is not always “cheap”, but so good!

  9. leshayman says:

    France Travel and Food,
    I agree, and we have some great ones where we live like Le Gabriel in Bordeaux, but you do need to know where to go and need to be very selective. It’s the choice and the random treasure finding that has diminished.

  10. Adriana says:

    So, with these great English cooks, with the always more polite German police, with the romantic Italian organizer… hell might be a better option in 100 years! 🙂 Still, I don’t know about the French engineers and Swiss lovers…

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, I understand your confusion with such a changing world of national characteristics. We will just have to add more nationalities in defining heaven and hell.
      For hell for example … American teachers of geography, Hungarian politicians, Syrian reconcillators and Australian definers of etiquette.
      Heaven … Thai masseuses, Indian actresses and Polish plumbers.

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