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French Cooking: Now in the Dustbin of History?

       Every year I drive several thousands of miles across France and recently we have been shocked to find ourselves occasionally in a town without a restaurant. I shouldn’t be shocked because I grew up in a town (Colne, Lancashire – population then around 20,000) which had no restaurant. On the other hand, I now live in a town (Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, population around 60,000) which has, according to Tripadvisor, 134 restaurants. Admittedly, there is an important conceptual shift here, because Tripadvisor is including anything that sells food above “ambient air temperature” as the VAT regulations have it whereas in the French case I mean a place where you would make eating a meal the main feature of your evening. But even by this definition Leamington has at least forty restaurants, including more French ones than some French towns of similar size. In 2010 the French government was successful in its application to UNESCO to have the “French Culinary Tradition” declared part of the “World Intangible Heritage” along with lots of forms of folk dancing and mouth music. (Neither British nor American governments have made applications under the relevant convention, prompting a potentially comical speculative game about what might be nominated.) The inescapable inference is that most French cooking, like most British industry, is now part of “heritage” rather than reality.

If you watch the likes of the charming Michel Roux Jnr. on BBC television you would think that the French culinary tradition is continuing unabated, magnificent in its richness and variety. Elsewhere, there is a different kind of debate. The most quoted work in this debate is Michael Steinberger’s 2009 book, Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine which has inspired articles in most newspapers and magazines of any pretension in Britain and America. If one were to give these a generic title it would be roughly, “My Holidays in France – Isn’t it Sad?”. In most of these there is an element of schadenfreude, of revenge for a previous cultural cringe. The tyranny of Escoffier, of Larousse Gastronomique and of Michelin Rouge is overthrown and we are relieved that it is so. The extreme version comes from the cosmopolitan Australian actor Sam Neill, a man who takes eating seriously and who said recently, “Overall I would say that London is the best place for food and wine and Paris is the worst. Thirty years ago, it was the other way round.”

According to some of the figures quoted in the debate the number of restaurants in France is down 80% from its historical maximum. In the crisis year of 2008 more than 3000 closed down, including 1800 “traditional” restaurants. Wine consumption is down 50% and France is now, for example, only in fifth place as an origin of wine imported into the UK. The second highest per capita incidence of MacDonald’s is in France. For some years no French restaurant has made the top ten in the San Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants. In 2013 the National Assembly considered legislation to prevent “restaurants” calling themselves such if they served predominantly pre-prepared foodstuffs: estimates varied from 33% to 75% of the food served in France as falling into this category: paté from the charcuterie rather than from the chef would be a (fairly respectable) example. None of these figures is umambiguous or indisputable, but they do all point in the same direction.

The social science of a cultural change on this scale is both fascinating and slippery. Clearly, the current sclerotic recession in France has brought to a head some long term trends. If you talk to people in France about the decline of the restaurant trade their first port of explanatory call is often a generation gap: it is not part of the lifestyle of young people to sit for two hours or more eating and drinking. This immediately raises the question of whether the correlation is with age or with era. After all, National Trust properties, straight theatre and long-distance walking in Britain are all dominated by the not-so-young, but it is assumed that people will grow into these activities when they have more leisure. But the parallel assumption is not being made in France. You can casually observe that the people in the restaurant are fairly elderly . while younger folk are in the brasserie eating, if at all, something with chips.

Then there is the dreaded mondialisation, considered so corrosive of things French and, perhaps in this case, rightly so. I think, for instance, that I personally am still the subject of a kind of French hegemony in that I think of a “proper” meal as a sequence of courses accompanied by appropriate wines with fish always eaten before meat, etc. This is, after all, essentially a French invention, but I have acquired the assumption not just from visiting France, but from high tables and posh restaurants and dinner parties in England. But as you travel you realise that most of the world – in India, China, the Middle East, etc – has not traditionally presented food in that way. There are many alternatives, from thali to tapas to the groaning table buffets of the Caucasus, not to mention American concepts of fast food. These may not be better, but they are almost certainly quicker, easier and cheaper. Mondialisation is particularly hard on lunch. Dear old Jules Maigret, you will recall, used to stop detecting at noon and repaired for a three-hour lunch cooked by Madame M. I can still show you bits of la France Profonde where even the supermarkets close for lunch, but it is claimed that the average time taken by a French person over lunch is now down to twenty two minutes. And how many French people over the last twenty years have visited the likes of London and New York and been converted to the view that there is lot more to the world of food than was ever found in Larrousse Gastronomique? Just as mass tourism is always said to have improved British food, it may have damaged and confused the French culinary tradition.

Nouvelle cuisine” has a lot to answer for. The phrase has been around since at least the 1720s and was the subject of a book written by a French chef called Menon in 1742. Escoffier thought of his own recipes as nouvelle cuisine. But here I am referring to the movement originating in the 1960s involving such writers as Christian Millau and Henri Gault, emphasising lighter meals and more artistic presentation. This nouvelle was designed for the rich, the stressed and people with medical problems. It’s excellent if you want an exquisite experience following an important board meeting, but not so good if you have been active in the open air. We once stayed at the hotel restaurant of one of the cult leaders of nouvelle, Michel Guerard, creator of cuisine minceur (roughly, “thin cooking”). We were relieved of more than 650 euros while concluding that the whole place had the atmosphere of a sanitorium rather than a hotel restaurant and was more about what you didn’t eat than what you ate. The real problem with nouvelle, I think, is that it broke the link between haute cuisine and decent, middle-of-the-road eating. Before its ideas took hold you used to be able to drive into a French town knowing that various dear old staples would be available: escargots dripping with herby butter, coq au vin, truite aux amandes etc. Once the culture took hold you knew you would probably be choosing between something mock-exquisite dribbled with jus or something with chips.

Then there is the Great Wine Nonsense. Recently, we were in Cahors, eating in an excellent restaurant for the third time. I made a speech in my prettiest French suggesting that choice was vastly over-estimated in human life and that I was quite happy to have the chef’s local menu, which contained no options. My wife did the same. The experienced waiter gave us one of those approving beams and produced the wine list, complete with his reccommendation: it cost 250 euros. How we laughed! Down the road in Languedoc where we stay regularly I buy wine from the farm at what works out to £1-20 a bottle. It’s very good, trtaditionally made in some ways by a family whose patois would be far more readily understood by a Catalan than by a Parisian, but it’s very modern in other ways: beautifully kept vines, stainless steel equipment, temperature controls and so on. It’s smooth and rich and the idea that you would pay over 100x that for a bottle of wine is manifestly ludicrous. I have twice conducted an experiment (in the form of a competitive quiz) with middle class English people to see if they can tell wines apart. The evidence suggests that hardly anybody can tell a Fleurie from a Pinotage, let alone a Blanquette de Limoux from a Champagne. To be fair, most people realise this and are perfectly happy with the situation. But think how French restaurants must look to many contemporary English people: they are used to drinking wine, decent tipple at a maximum of £15 a bottle. They then go into a French restaurant and find there is nothing under 40 euros on the wine list: “snotty” and “rip-off” are bound to be the inferences – and it makes them feel uncomfortable. The French are not much different: it is remarkable how little wine they drink in restaurants these days, though it must be remarked that this problem is much worse in Grand Vin areas than in more humble places and is complicated by breathalysers and health campaigns.

French restaurants are probably in the least trouble in tourist areas where there is a clearly defined culinary expectation. For example, you can carry on serving what is essentially German food in Colmar or bouillabesse in Marseilles or assiette de fruits de mer in Norman fishing villages and the punters will keep on rolling in. Elsewhere, there seems to be a challenge not merely to the commercial viability of the French restaurant, but even to the identity of traditional French food. Our experiences this year have included, for example, a restaurant which said that there would be at least three substantial vegetable portions with every main course – and they were as good as their word with a large baked potato and a pot of cauliflower cheese. Had someone lectured them on the virtues of English pub food? Or on the dangers of bowel cancer and the need for roughage? There was also a restaurant where everything tasted faintly of curry and one where there was a rather pathetic typed notice requesting that customers should not speak unkindly of the establishment on Tripadvisor because their livelihoods were at stake.

Steinberger blames it all on over-regulation and sees it as part of a general decline in French society. I am sceptical on both counts. Actually, I think that French regulation has had complex effects and the “Royet Law” of 1974 (named for the Mayor of Tours) which protects la petite commerce from many of the regulations governing bigger businesses like supermarkets has helped charcuteries and patisseries to survive. The real problem seems to me to be the weight of tradition which stops a French restaurateur from being light on their feet when compared to an English one. And as for the “decline of French society” – I have survived a few decline debates inspired by Gibbonesque imagery and I think it is very difficult to tell decline from change or the a short term effect from a long term effect until long afterwards. I was very familiar with the “decline of Britain” debate in the 1970s and concluded that most things said were simplistic, ideologically motivated and exaggerated. Perhaps a better analogy would be the “Why are we so crap?” debate which started about British sport in the 1950s and which led to the Sports Councils, the lottery and to a considerable revival in British sport, which had also been weighed down by a sense of its own magnificence. French food, like British sport, has deep cultural roots and probably contains the mechanism of its own revival.

I hope so! Ihave so many happy memories of French restaurants. The happiest of all was on a late summer’s night forty years ago. We had wandered round ten countries in our A35 van: we had been robbed twice, broken down twice, been lost in the dead of night in the Slovenian mountains, had several brushes with the police and a particularly menacing encounter with Russian guards when trying to cross the Iron Curtain. But one thing that hadn’t gone wrong was that we hadn’t spent all our funds. So when we staggered over the border back from Belgium into France we booked ourselves into a hotel restaurant for DBB and pulled out the smartest clothes we could muster. The restaurant was full, the wine was affordable, each succeding course was excellent, the patron was friendly and charming to us. When it came to the cheese course we were left with a vast disc with over fifty cheeses on it. The whole thing cost about half what it would have cost in England at the time. It was my wife’s first French restaurant meal and it set up the lifelong tradition of a last night treat. It would be nice to think that a young couple could still have that experience. Perhaps they could, but not so spontaneously – only after thorough research on the internet.

Lincoln Allison