La belle France: Can we fall in love again?
I’m sure I’m not alone in eagerly looking forward to Raymond Blanc’s new series The Very Hungry Frenchman. And goodness me, doesn’t French food needs a dose of his Gallic charm? As has been well-documented by books such as Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That: the Rise and Fall of French Cuisine French cooking is in crisis, something that deeply saddens me as a lifelong francophile.
Where did it go wrong? Keith Floyd promoting French cuisine in 1988.
Not so long ago you used to be able to turn up in any small town at lunchtime and find a family restaurant crammed with contented locals. Now you’re lucky to find a pizzeria. The most authentic meal I had last year in rural France was cooked by an expat Englishman.
In Provence a couple of years ago the chefs seemed more in thrall to molecular gastronomy than they were about the amazing produce on their doorstep. Teetering towers of ingredients, squiggles and foams, now abandoned as dated by most British chefs, still dominate the plates of posher provincial restaurants. In cheaper ones the desserts, once one of the great glories of French cuisine, are simply bought in.
Dishes are dotted with ill-understood Asian ingredients and the odd penchant for sucré-salé - bizarre sweet and sour combinations that, more often than not, don’t quite work. It’s almost as if they’re embarrassed by their food - who would have thought the French could suffer from cultural cringe?
Sadly it applies to shops, too. I can actually buy better French cheese where we live in Bristol than in the Languedoc where we take our holidays. Even our supermarkets do better justice to British regional cheeses than the French with their shelves of mass-produced industrialised products do to theirs.
It’s true, I admit, that our tastes have changed. At one time the luxuriant richness of French food with its wine-rich, creamy, buttery sauces would have seemed like the acme of sophistication. Now - unlike fashionable Spanish food and perenially popular Italian - classic French cuisine seems dated and unhealthy but modern French cooking just seems to have lost direction and a sense of place.
There was a charming series years ago fronted by the late Mireille Johnston that made me want to cook French every week. I still treasure her books along with my battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
I hope Monsieur Blanc will make us all fall back in love with French cooking again and - more importantly - persuade his countrymen that it’s still a cuisine to be proud of.
Can we revive our passion for France? If anyone can, Raymond can.