A bas le fast-food


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):


See the source image
Brochet a la sauce moutarde


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:

See the source image
Langue a la sauce piquante


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.


See the source image
Raie au beurre noire

Serves 2

2 servings of skate wings
4 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 onion
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
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.

Simple, wonderful.


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’s 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 two years ago with a heavy heart.

Sorry, it was an accident

How we kill and never think about it

By Pete Field

In the mid-sixties driving in the countryside meant squashed insects on the windscreen, sometimes hundreds of them. You had to get the wipers going, smear them off with water. Now our insect numbers are down because populations have declined sharply due to heavy use of pesticides. Farmers are trying to give us affordable food, but to do so they have created green deserts in the spaces between towns. In England even the common sparrow has vanished from the east side of the country However, insects are not the only creatures killed by cars: household pets are routinely executed by our neighbours.

Tiddles, the terror of the garden at 57, Acacia Avenue, who has herself assassinated hundreds of mice, frogs and birds, has to meet her maker at the hands of Mr Smith in his Ford Cortina from number 39. Lost cat notices abound. Leaving aside the issue of whether running over pet cats might be a benefit for wildlife, we also have to consider the loss of wild birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians on the roads of the world: trillions of creatures die yearly, a massive cull which goes virtually unnoticed. We may remark a squashed hedgehog, a frog splattered into the tarmac and now dried out, the brown feathers of a pheasant which bounced off a lorry and now lies in the verge. Predators may come to eat these animals and themselves risk becoming the next death statistic.

We poison them, we kick them out, we scare them away and we knock them on the head; we are the enemy.

Such deaths by fast-moving vehicle are known as roadkill. Roadkill never happened before the internal combustion engine because vehicles were slow and noisy and animals had plenty of time to avoid them. Cars, trucks and vans are so much part of our society that we cannot imagine life without them yet the creatures which inhabit our natural environment are dying at our hands; they are mown down on busy roads, deprived of food and habitat by land clearance and roadbuilding. And then there is climate change which upsets the natural cycle for the birds and animals that hang on in the few spaces we have left them.

We poison them, we kick them out, we scare them away and we knock them on the head; we are the enemy. Maybe rewilding, on a large enough scale, will help our wild creatures survive, but we need to do more. Use public transport instead of driving your car. Cycle and walk. If you must drive, drive slowly. Electric cars are cleaner, but also quieter – will they kill more wildlife? The bird slaughter of wind turbines is nothing to holocaust caused by drivers.

There is only one good thing about roadkill, the tally of our casual violence towards other lifeforms: you can eat it.

Much roadkill is on the motorways and on fast B Roads on the countryside where animals and birds may think they have a chance to cross the road. You find the animals tossed onto the grass verge by the collision with the bumper [fender in the USA]. If they remain on the road they will be squashed to a pulp, a meat pate with broken bones, ground into the tarmac by successive vehicles.

There is only one good thing about roadkill, the tally of our casual violence towards other lifeforms: you can eat it. Obviously you won’t be scraping that dried out hedgehog off the gravel. If you find a deer, rabbit, hare or pheasant which has been killed and slung onto the verge, look to see if it is intact. If there are no gaping wounds, just bruising, look at the eyes. If the eyes are quite bright it has not been dead long. If it is not dusty and it does not have rigor mortis then it is fresh and you can eat it. Sling it in a bag and take it home and cook it. Anything which has been there more than a day will either get eaten by carrion birds or foxes or it will look pretty rough. Most roadkill is a lot fresher than anything in a butcher’s shop and there is no lead shot in your pheasant either. If you are a vegan or vegetarian do not visit your vengeance upon me for writing this: if you find a dead animal that is edible and you eat it you are not guilty of its death.

Sling it in a bag and take it home and cook it.

Having said that, the way we live, our over-use of fast vehicles and our acceptance of overdevelopment, pollution and appalling farming practices mean that there are no clean hands (not even the vegans): through the heedless way we live we are all guilty of killing the plants, animals and insects around us. If we are not careful this atavistic destruction will ensure our own end and many other animals will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief.

Pete Field graduated from Oxford University with a passion for all things French. He began his peripatetic life working as the assistant to a lumberjack in the Pyrenees. He is a translator a teacher and an artist. He has lived and worked in Italy, Germany, Spain, France, The UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The author doesn’t live in Sussex

How to be a Gourmet

– like Richard Steinhardt

By Phil Hall

Richard Steinhardt in 1939

Grandpa was an admirer of Napoleon and this was partly why he chose to live in Golfe Juan in 1972. The other reason they both chose to live in Golfe was because they had gone on honeymoon to Cannes and Nice in 1935.

My grandfather, Richard Steinhardt, became a gourmet. How did it happen? I see a picture of him in Zemun in 1914 and he and his brother and sister look unhappy and hungry.  Richard’s father, my great grandfather, was rather grand. He was the foreign editor of the famous Nueue Freie Presse and used to go out into Vienna in the evenings dressed in furs to meet important Viennese people in expensive, brilliantly lit cafes and restaurants. There he ate plates of impossibly delicious food, drank wine and sipped coffee. He left his little family at home to eat stew and dumplings. That’s where it started.

Richard, Else and Artur Steinhardt in Zemun

Richard married a beautiful young German girl, and they went to live in Paris. He met her after a play in Frankfurt. Her brother, my great uncle Heini, an actor, was her twin.

Richard invited the whole cast to dinner. After a few weeks he proposed to Lisa. He showered her with gifts and left to Paris. From Paris he sent Lisa a ticket and she got on the train. In Paris they had a business-like wedding near the Pigale, where Richard had a flat. He was very busy and immediately after marrying her he rushed off. It was 1935 and marriages between Jews and Germans had just been disallowed in Germany.

My grandmother describes Paris between the Wars as heaven on Earth. Not the city of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’; rather more like Hemingway’s ‘A Movable Feast’.

When Grandpa Richard came back from his business trips, he would describe in minute detail all the dishes he had tried and my grandmother would work hard to reconstruct them. This is how she became such a tremendously good cook.

Uncle Heini told me: 

‘When I came to Paris to visit Lisa and Richard and see little Eve it was 1937. Richard met me at the station and he asked me with his charming smile. He could be terribly charming. You know how charming he could be. He said:

‘Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?’

‘I said “Yes, thank you.” and he took me to a little restaurant that he knew near the station that had just opened.

‘It was more like a bistro, really. It was very small, but very fashionable. The only table available had a pillar coming out of the middle of it and so, as we ate, in order to talk we had to lean over to one side of the pillar or the other.

‘The restaurant was famous for its hors d’oeuvres and had a long tasting menu. Richard ordered all 40 hors d’oeuvres. And I had to try each one.

‘After a while I couldn’t continue. I was stuffed. But he gave me his thoughts on every dish and asked me for my opinion. In the end I was completely exhausted and full. I couldn’t eat another thing. But Richard carried on. He ordered both main courses. Your grandfather loved food.

‘As he was travelling all over Europe for his company, as far as Russia, he knew where all the good restaurants were. Sometimes he made a special trip to another country to try a restaurant that had had a good review and that people were talking about.’

We visited Richard and Lisa in Paris in 1966. But what created such a huge impression in my mind and my brothers’ minds was Christmas in Paris in 1969.

We were struggling in London. My mother was a French teacher in a secondary Modern. Some of her female students were great brutes. Fights started every day and she said all she could do was to pipe:

‘Stop it! Stop it!’ The girls ignored her, of course.

My father was working at Drum magazine for very little, commuting into London on the Northern line. My brothers and I were three soft little boys at a working class school where  the main form of entertainment seemed to be fighting.

We spent Christmas with Richard and Lisa in their little flat in Meudon la Forêt in 1969. We went over on a ferry. Lisa prepared roast goose stuffed with chestnuts, and red cabbage. There were beautiful deserts. We were allowed to taste wine and liqueurs. There were walnuts and cheese. There were chocolates. After the dinner grandpa smoked a good cigar. It was a cold winter, but we were very cosy. The meal was colourful, fragrant and memorable.  Christmas 1969 still sparkles in my memory.

There was an old fashioned civility and charm to the way grandpa ate food at restaurants. Early on he took my parents with him and occasionally we would join them. There was so much more rigmarole about going to a restaurant with Richard. If the meal was good, he had to have a conversation with the chef to congratulate him.

In 1974, I was at a school in the north of England. The food was appalling, but, even so, I quite liked it. I liked the baked beans on toast. But what I liked most was tea time at 5 pm. In fact it was the evening meal.  I drank cup after cup after cup of hot, milky sweet tea and ate lots of slices of white bread with margarine and strawberry jam.

The author in 1974

In spring I went down to Golfe Juan to stay with my grandparents. I have big hair in the picture because I never went to the barber’s at my Quaker boarding school in Great Ayton. I am 14, standing next to the stone commemorating the return of Napoleon from his exile in Elba. 

My grandfather loved going early to the market in Cannes. Once, with a smile, he said: 

‘Try this. Lean over the balcony when you bite into it.’

He gave me a heavy peach. When I bit into it the peach water dripped down my chin onto the patios and balconies below.

‘Is it nice?’, he asked.

We never had Bouillabaisse, we always had Soup de Poisson. It is a powerful dish with its own ritual. Scrape the garlic onto the dry stale bread. Sit the bread in the soup plate, spoon the rouille onto the bread, sprinkle Gruyere over the rouille and then ladle on the hot fish soup which melts the cheese.

This, he said, is delicious, but wasted on you. It tastes of the sea. He cracked open a purple sea urchin and scooped out the little wet orange blob in the middle and ate it.

The thing about the apartment was that it was built right by a busy railway line and so all conversation halted while trains rushed through at high speed hooting. Grandpa had bought his flat on the strict promise from the local government that there would be no further construction to block the view. Of course that promise was broken by the local mayor, a Communist. Grandpa said he hated Communists and liked the books of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guarseschi.

The priest, in the books of Don Camilo, was based on a partisan Catholic priest, Don Camilo Valota. Don Camilo in the stories is involved in a comical war with the local Communist mayor in a small Italian town.

In the end, Grandpa Richard took me to all his favourite restaurants along the coast. We went from Juan les Pins to Antibes to Monaco, Nice to Vingtemille, Cannes to St Tropez. We walked up to Vallouris up past all the villas and ate buttery almond Picassos at a little cafe famous for them. Picasso, who had a house in Vallouris, had died there a year or so before. He was another Communist.

In those days Graham Greene lived nearby in Juan les Pins. That was another walk. All along the coast past the little restaurants, past the large, sharp, concrete tank traps on the shore, laid to prevent allied landings. They were removed in the 1990s.

Grandpa exchanged letters with Graham Greene. He wrote proudly of Mom’s activism in South Africa. He boasted about his daughter’s courage. He was secretly very proud of her, though at the time he had expressed strong disapproval.

Richard and Lisa outside the Fondacion Maeght

Grandpa Richard disliked modern art, but he felt I should know about it so Granny Lisa and I went inside the galleries to look at Picasso’s bold designs, at Giacometti’s pinched figures, at paintings by Leger and others.

The highlight for me was Chapelle Matisse. I was moved by the Chapel’s interior at 14 and felt the same emotion when I revisited it 40 years later. I can smell the concrete of the church, the damp grout. It was quiet and the Provencal light penetrated through the stained glass, strong and sweet. 

Best of all, perhaps, was to wake up, sit on the balcony with my Grandfather and Granny Lisa and eat pink grapefruit segments followed by lacy croissants spread with French butter and fruit conserve. Then to drink hot chocolate from wide brimmed cups as the sun slowly warmed us all up. When we were older we drank café au lait.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

Breakfast toad in the hole

A cracker from the renowned Circus Chef.

“A bit of isolation cooking here. A breakfast toad in the hole and not one for the faint hearted. As we released the Giffords Circus cookbook a couple of days after lockdown began, we had some time to try out some different recipes and this one had been at the back of my mind waiting to be cooked. A mixture of a full English breakfast, pancakes and well a roast! It’s definitely one for a Sunday morning where you’re not bothered what it’ll do for your figure!”



Ols Halas ran away with Giffords in 2013, after working in various Cotswolds restaurants, pubs, hotels and a stint in the French Alps. He and his team serve dinner to guests in a vast traditional circus tent, with menus changing weekly according to the season and availability of local produce.


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