HAS FRENCH CUISINE ENTERED ITS TWILIGHT YEARS?
Jacques Chirac famously stirred up a hornet’s nest of indignation when in 2012 he had the temerity to criticise British cuisine. “We can’t trust people who have such bad food,” he said. “After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food”.
At once the British media was aflame with outrage at such a jibe, with Andrew Neil, ex-newspaper editor and right wing TV pundit, apoplectically leading the charge. To paraphrase his outburst, Johnny Foreigner has absolutely no bloody right to diss our food when we have some of the very finest restaurants in the world – thereby, as ever, missing the point entirely.
How does one evaluate a nation’s cuisine? Certainly not by fixating on a handful of restaurants that only a tiny percentage of the population could ever dream of eating in. You have to look at how people actually eat, how different sections of the population eat, how different regions eat – what your neighbour, your aunt, what the banker and the postmen are popping into their mouths. The food that’s being prepared at home, that’s served up in cafes, in works canteens, in hospitals and schools and take-ways and pubs and… wherever people eat. Posh restaurants for the One Percenters don’t loom large in such an assessment.
Of course, as well as Andrew Neal entirely missing the point Chirac was being deliberately disingenuous – and his jibe had exactly the desired effect. He must have loved the reaction. We Brits have served up some truly gruesome fare over the years, especially in our institutions, but there has always been a core of fine British cooking and there is no doubt we are getting a bit better at it. Leave aside the fetishism of TV nonsense such as Masterchef and top end culinary onanism, most people, where they can afford to, are eating better food. But this piece is not about the British relationship with food, it is about our neighbours across that strip of water.
French cuisine ain’t as good as it used to be. The rot set in well before Chirac made his famous remarks, and seems to be accelerating. As someone who has visited and stayed in France frequently over the decades, I chart this decline with great sadness. French cuisine has always been celebrated for its excellence and variety, and has been inextricably a big part of my seventy year bout of Francophilia.
I have early memories of family holidays in France. When I was four I recall our car being hoisted onto the deck of the channel ferry by crane, the Hotel Tamise in Paris where I lost my favourite soft toy, and the endless drive through rural France: the numerous stops for punctures, the heat and the din of crickets, waiting for trains at level crossings, stopping in creaky, shadowy hotels in small towns and eating in gloomy restaurants with nicotine brown wood panelling and colourful gingham tablecloths. The British had austerity, the French had food – although at that age my tastes didn’t run much beyond steak-frites, and meats were often hidden under baffling sauces. Fortunately, children’s menus were still several decades in the future; little by little my horizons were broadened, it was eat what the grown ups are having or chew on bread.
At some point I learned about the distinction between countries and continents. France seemed so vast to me, my parents could not convince me that it was not a continent. Looking back I see we were really privileged to be taking holidays abroad, in an age where they were still the province of the few. Not that I knew it at the time; your family is your normality.
The next phase in my relationship with France and its food began when I was seventeen, when in pursuit of a doomed romance I found myself staying for a summer’s holiday in a working class quarter of Paris with Uncle Ladis and Aunt Henriette. Henriette, a formidable cook, set about repairing my broken heart and bruised ego with some of the best food I have ever tasted. It was good, honest, inexpensive cooking, and I became fascinated by the alchemy involved in its preparation. In her hands even a mushroom omelette was a work of art. My mother by that time worshipped at the altar of Elizabeth David, but it took Henriette’s omelette to kindle my desire to learn to cook.
My romance with the young lady had not worked out, but my romance with France only intensified. The next year found me staying with my cousin and her husband just around the corner from Ladis and Henriette. They too were talented cooks, and took my culinary education seriously. Did I like horsemeat? Jacques asked me when I was half way through a steak chevaline a la sauce d’armagnac. It was too late for squeamishness, I finished my plate.
Despite having fought in the Algerian War of Independence, Jacques had plenty of Algerian friends in the neighbourhood, and I was introduced to couscous and other North African dishes in many of the cheapest, noisiest and best restaurants. They had become part of French eating habits in the way Indian food established itself in the UK. On an Easter visit I tagged along with Annie and Jacques to the wedding of Jacques’ brother, in a small town near Tours. The three day eat and drinkathon was exceptional, but one dish sticks in my mind to this day: brochet du Loire a la sauce moutarde. Here’s a stolen recipe (which is even better for the dodgy Google translation):
1 2 kg pike 1 onion bouquet garni 2 cloves pepper salt 0.5 dl white vinegar lemons parsley For dijonnaise sauce: 4 egg yolks 400 g butter 1 tablespoon white mustard salt pepper 1/2 lemon
The preparation of the short broth and the cooking of the pike: Boil in a large saucepan 2 l of water, white vinegar, onion stung with cloves, bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Let it boil for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the short broth cool.
Place the pike in a fishmonger at its waist, and water it with the short broth passed in the fine sieve.
Bring it to a gentle boil; When the liquid boils, turn down the heat to maintain a slight simmer. Cook for 30 minutes.
When the fish is cooked, it can wait in the short broth for the time of serving.
Dijon sauce: Allow the butter to soften at room temperature.
Put the egg yolks, salt, pepper and a small knob of butter in a small saucepan. Place this pan in a double boiler and whisk the egg yolks until they thicken. Add the butter in small pieces, whisking constantly and always in a double boiler, until all the butter is incorporated into the sauce. Add mustard, lemon juice. Whisk vigorously, always in a double boiler, until the sauce is foamy.
Presentation: Take the pike out of the fishmonger; place it for a few moments on a folded cloth, then slide it onto the serving plate. Decorate with parsley and half lemons. Serve hot and place the sauce in a saucepan.
I’ve never cooked a fish in a fishmonger, but you probably get the idea.
In a previous existence I had a French girlfriend who came from Normandy. On visits to her family in Le Havre we were indulged with a wide variety of seafoods, plus the usual Normandy dishes swimming in butter, cream and cider. Delicious. It’s no wonder that traditionally Normandy had the highest rate of heart disease in France. But one dish that was new to me, which was soon rolled out for me whenever we appeared, was Langue a la sauce piquante. I simply loved it, although it’s a slight faff to prepare – more in terms of time than difficulty. Here’s how:
1.7 to 2kg beef tongue, 2 small glasses alcohol vinegar, 1 glass dry white wine, 1 onion studded with 5 cloves, 1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, parsley), 3 cubes broth, salt & pepper, 2 shallots, minced, 60g butter, 4 tablespoons flour, 120g gherkins, chopped, 1 tablespoon tomato paste,1 teaspoon mustard, Sugar.
Soak tongue in refrigerator for 24 hours. In a large pan, cover with water and add glass of vinegar. Boil for two minutes. Drain tongue and discard water. Return tongue to new boiling water. Pour in second glass of vinegar then onion with cloves, plus the stock cubes and bouquet garni. Season. Cook for 2-3 hours (when cooked the skin comes away from the tongue). Remove the tongue from the broth and remove the skin. Keep broth. Make the sauce: Soften the onion and shallots in butter. Stir in the flour for 2-3 minutes, then add tomato paste. Stir in the white wine and add 1 to 1.5l cooking stock, allow to thicken, then add chopped gherkins and mustard and sugar. Slice tongue, arrange in oven dish, pour on sauce and then reheat.
In the early 1970s my sister very kindly moved to Paris, where she was to live and work for the next twenty years, giving me a convenient base whenever I visited. Being a fellow foodie, she had an intimate knowledge of where to buy the best ingredients and which restaurants to go to without busting the bank.
Visits continued fairly regularly, with young family in tow, until in the late 1990s I inherited a lump sum of money that enabled me to indulge in the bourgeois fantasy of buying a modest holiday home in Gascony, deep in South West France. A new cuisine awaited us – very heavily reliant on duck and heavy, hearty flavours. I won’t include a duck recipe, however, because where duck is concerned it is too easy to gild the lily. To over-complicate cooking duck is a mistake, simple is best. Instead I’ve included a treat I’ve loved since childhood, Raie au beurre noire, skate in black butter sauce. In any of the ports we arrive in or depart from in France, it’s what I try to order.
2 servings of skate wings
4 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 stick of celery
1 bay leaf
pinch of salt
60g/2 oz butter (ideally fine, unsalted butter – don’t stint – it is the co-star of this dish)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp capers
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (leaves only – no stalks)
Use a large pan big enough to take the wings side by side. Add enough water to cover them, but not yet the wings. Chop the onion, carrot and celery roughly and add to the water with the bay leaf, peppercorns, half the wine vinegar and the salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the wings. Return to a boil then turn down to a simmer. The water should be barely bubbling. Cook for 10 minutes.
While that’s happening, melt the butter in a frying pan. Watch it carefully, stirring a little. It should go brown, not black. When it does, add the lemon juice, capers, parsley and the rest of the wine vinegar. Stir until blended.
Drain the fish, transfer to plates. Pour over the sauce.
So where has it all gone wrong? I think even Mr Chirac would have conceded that for a long time the French have been losing their culinary mojo. There’s still wonderful food in France, make no mistake, but there’s less of it. What has been happening?
I think one can trace the decline to the start of the 1980s, when in France and well as the UK business became more cutthroat, leaner and nastier. The French two hour lunch started to be frowned upon, le fast-food arrived. Working practises changed, family dynamics changed, people had less time to prepare food lovingly. Globalisation had arrived, and with it the big food manufacturers. In France convenience foods may have a Gallic flavour, but look at the small print on the packaging and the same global, mega-corporations keep cropping up.
I am an inveterate supermarket trolley snoop. And a quick peek in an average French supermarket trolley is a depressing experience. So many pre-packed, convenience foods. And quite often the quality of the fresh food isn’t all it should be. If you want better produce go to the food markets, but you had better have deep pockets.
Of course – the charcuterie is still wonderful, there are still hundreds of fantastic cheeses, the average patisserie is still a wonderland compared to poor old Greggs. But where good food was almost universal once in France, and I mean decent, well-prepared bourgeois nosh – not the frou-frou poncey stuff that only hedge-fund managers and Andrew Neal can afford – it is getting much harder to find.
It is still a treat to meander through small-town France, looking for the kind of unassuming hotel/restaurant whose menu (whatever was best at the market that day) can cost more than its inexpensive rooms. There are still restaurants that serve escargots and coq au vin (when they’re good they’re very very good). There are still lunch only joints where working people can get an affordable three course meal with wine and coffee compris. In the corner of Gascony we frequent there are still a few restaurants serving authentic cuisine Gasconne. But more and more they are turning into pizzerias or Vietnamese restaurants or fast food joints. Leave the countryside and go to the cities and tourist resorts and good, middle-range restaurants and brasseries are giving way to clip-joints selling homogenised Euro-cuisine, burger bars or high end establishments whose menus make your eyes water. What the French truly excelled at, good regional cooking, is being throttled out of existence.
I think Jacques Chirac was very well aware if what was happening to French cuisine when he uttered his little provocation. He would certainly have eaten in in the most frou-frou of restaurants, but he still would have seen the way the wind was blowing – he was a Frenchman. But for getting Andrew Neal into such a lather, I can forgive him almost anything.
Paul Halas a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party last year with a heavy heart.