BBC Food blog

« Previous | Main | Next »

La belle France: Can we fall in love again?

Post categories:

Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett | 13:05 UK time, Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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.

Keith Floyd from TV programme,

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Somewhat over-pessimistic I think. Fiona`s comments may well be true of Languedoc/Roussillon which is an area of huge internal immigration but it is certainly not true of the heartland of traditional French cuisine - the South-West, specially the Dordogne. There are innumerable restaurants where skilled chefs are proud of their skill and who are eager to display their prowess. As for traditional French cuisine being dated I can only say that fashion is ephemeral whereas quality is eternal.

  • Comment number 2.

    France has rested on its laurels of its haute cuisine for too long and England, which has had a long way to go to shake off its dire post WW2 cooking reputation has probably now surpassed it. However having said that, where I live in Provence, the markets are full of the very best produce, there may not be the choice of cheese that you get in a UK supermarket, but that is because the French still shop locally. Where I live the majority of cheeses are goat or sheep, as there aren't many cows this far south, and most of the cheeses are made by small artisanal manufacturers, who have been making them for generations. The Provencal diet is one of the healthiest ones around, they use little dairy, mainly olive oil, fish and lots of vegetables. This article is based on a huge generalisation of French cuisine, and yet the joy of French food is that it is still very local.

  • Comment number 3.

    I can't believe what is said about cheeses. I have found the most exquiiste cheeses over the last year in Lyon and the Midi,and never found anything to compare in the UK. Even in the large supermarkets, in towns and cities, the selection of cheeses, as well as fish and seafood,is several tunes larger than that fournd in most major UK supermarkets. Small retaurants in places like Lyon are also excellent value and reasonably healthy.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have to agree with the article as I have noticed through 25 years of visiting different regions of France that the food has changed markedly. I have had some of my best meals out there and some of my very worst. The markets are still fantastic but the restaurants can be very muddled in their menus and you rarely see any of the wonderful array of available vegetables on those menus. I also have a problem with the sauces that they smother over everything, why ruin a beautiful piece of say Turbot with a sauce that means you can no longer taste the fish?

    I think they have just been resting on their laurels smugly for far too long and other cuisines have sped past them, there is still some wonderful local food out there but you do have to find your way off the beaten track very often or fight you way past the pizzerias to get to them. That is my experience in the Charente, Languedoc, Ardeche, Aquitaine and the Dordogne as a tourist however locals I am sure have better access to little gems.

    As for the comment about cheeses I think we have equally exquisite cheeses here, I adore St Agur but equally though it is very different Stilton is hard to beat, Brie de meaux is unctuously delicious but my cheeseboard would not be complete without Shipcord mature cheese or some Stinking bishop, its not a contest as we will always travel over there for good RED wine (our white is just as good) and sunshine and of course they have much more land and beaches to explore but I no longer think of France and food as my main reason for traveling there.

  • Comment number 7.

    This article is total middle class tosh. Revive our pasion for France? Maybe the author doesent know the southwest. Even around Lille in the industrial north there is amazing food if you follow the locals and the Jura is full of incredible cheese and unusual white wine - well best keep it quiet so the Range Rovers dont come hurtling in looking for a cheaper than tescos deal!

    Sometimes its better that people who do live in that bubble of a year in Provence stick to their world. That leaves the life as usual ordinary France for real people to discover quietly and calmly as they always do - Sans les petit-bourgeois!

  • Comment number 8.

    Greviste. Are middle class people not real in your world?, these people put hundreds of thousands of Euro's into Frances economy every year and as such have a voice. I am not middle class but do spend the majority of my holiday money there and agree with a lot (not all) of the article, the produce is good but not always the restaurants... If France continues to alienate the people spend their hard earned money there it is the "real" folk who will suffer.

  • Comment number 9.

    Scalywitch, Middle class people are definately real of course and you make a valid point concerning their spending power. I live in France and interact with them all the time.

    My real grip was with the tone of the article and the whole falling back in love with France rubbish. Had a good meal - ah were in love with the country, had a bad meal or found cheaper cheese chez tesco, oh dear we've fallen out of love again.

    The reality is there are plenty of happy people from Holland, Germany Italy, Portugal and the USA who have great spending power too. Britain is not the only country keeping the "real folk" from suffering.

    But I wish you bon vacances if you go this year!

  • Comment number 10.

    Ooof, quite a few points to pick up on here. Firstly I’ve travelled to most parts of France during the last couple of years - including the Jura - so I’m not just judging it by Provence to which I’ve only been once in that period or the Languedoc which I admittedly visit more often. There are of course exceptions but I would say that the overall standard of food has without a doubt declined over the last 20 years. You used, as I say, to be able to turn up to any small town and find somewhere good to eat. You can’t now.

    Of course there are good cheese shops and great markets too but in towns which have neither - and there are many - the only source of cheese is a supermarket and they’re not that good. I’m utterly unrepentant though about comparing French cheese with British and Irish cheeses - ours are just as impressive these days.

    Where we still don’t match up to France is in the quality of our fresh fruit and vegetables but how often do you see them on a menu? Again, not as often as you used to in the days when there was always fresh fruit available and every meal was served with a salad.

    And the middle class point? Please don’t trot out that tired old chestnut @Greviste. Virutally every Brit who visits or lives in France is middle class by definition and I don't say that as an insult. The French simply don't have our absurd obsession with class.

  • Comment number 11.

    I do enjoy the foodie programmes that you distribute internationally & I live in East Africa. However the series of Masterchef is way behind the UK. The series of Professional Masterchef is interesting where you put professional chef's under pressure to deliver perfect food in a very limited time that is dissected by professional journalistic critic's who I enjoy. However I assume that they are Michalin Star chefs in their own right. So, why not get them all together and develop a series of Masterchef "The Critic's" and let them be judged by Michelin star chefs on their abilities in creating the very highest quality menus that are cooked by themselves with no professional help. I think this would be interesting and also establish their credibility in their profession as "food critics". They certainly are very well dressed and seeing them in a chef's attire would brighten my day. This could be fun, and I sincerely believe that an international audience will enjoy the competition enormously --- I certainly would. Hey folks what do you think??????? I would be surprised if the BEEB would pick this up however.

  • Comment number 12.

    I enjoy watching Masterchef, however please could somebody advise the contestants that it really is not good practice to put fingers in mouths, wipe persparation away from their heads with their hands then carry on cooking, (it is possible to do it correctly as one contestant last nightused his towel). Why does no one wear a hat? Surley cooking at this level should allow for basic hygeine.

  • Comment number 13.

    "Virtually every Brit who visits or lives in France is middle class by definition and I don't say that as an insult"

    What an extraordinary thing to say. I know you are not being insulting but it’s quite an over generalisation you are making. There are all sorts of French speaking people from all sorts of countries who travel backwards and forwards from London to Paris. Just hang out in the Eurostar terminal or visit any university town in France.

    I did enjoy the rest of your article though and agree that some of the restaurant experience has diminished. Although as for supermarkets I can recommend Auchan - its fantastic for cheeses from all over France and the fish counters are superb. They always have really knowledgeable staff that have a great regional understanding of their produce. When there are no local shops on your route I would really recommend them.

    Restaurants will come and go, by far the best food experience is always at peoples houses, when you get invited you see where all that fresh produce goes!

    I am really looking forward to the programme tonight.

  • Comment number 14.


    I'm sorry Fiona but I quite disagree with you, you just don't know where to go. I guess you tried only 2 or 3 restaurants to dare say such things, and you were unlucky. You should try this out : (in the center of Paris)

    Next time you come in France ( Britain, Paris or in the South-West of the France ), you have to have a look at some things, especially for the South-West :
    -La Tapenade (if you like the olives)
    -Le pâté Lou Gascoun (you can find it near Bordeaux)
    -Pastis Landais (nothing to do with the alcohol !)
    -Cannelés (ask for some people to make it for you)
    -Le Piment d'espelette (very well known in the south of the France, used in chocolate, sausage, a lot of things)
    -If you're a fan of the "Charcuterie", you really have to try all the kinds of "Saucissons".
    -Le Magret de canard au foie gras.
    -La Galantine.
    and the list is non exhaustive !

    Oh my god, there are so many things to taste, just send me a private message if you want some pieces of advice !
    I acknowledge that, maybe, the average of the quality seen in restaurant decreased (compared to 10 years ago). But this is mainly due to fast-foods, kebabs and all this biiiip !
    But you can't say French cooking is in crisis, really.

    I agree with you German88 and scalywitch, but to avoïd this kind of restaurant, just ask some people to find the "bonnes adresses" as we say in french !

    It would be a pleasure to help you discover the real French food ! Don't hesitate to contact me.

    ps : excuse my english, I'm scottish ! (joke, I'm french, but still learning).

  • Comment number 15.

    To Tony,
    I am planning to visit the Bordeaux region in June/July 2012 and would like to know if you could recommend then any specific areas of interest for food / cheese / wine - or all of the above? I am not familiar with the area and it will be my first visit thank you.

  • Comment number 16.

    I have lived in Paris for 30 years and I blame the young. Too busy clinging on to their jobs to do the decent thing and have a sit-down meal. Just 23 minutes on average for lunch we are told, and often at a desk. Lunch? that's for Sundays. Hence French food today is le sandwich - or le panini to make the same thing sound a bit different.
    Lunch is, like Montmartre and Montparnasse, like Brel and Brassens, a thing of the past. Fossilized, it exists mostly in the memory.

  • Comment number 17.

    To ME,

    For the wine, you really have to try a wine called "St-Emilion". If you're a fan of meat, you should try the "Entrecôte Bordelaise", not too cooked to keep all the taste. There's a restaurant called "L'entrecôte" near the big theater in the center of Bordeaux.

    You can visit the town of Saint-Emilion, wich is near bordeaux, have a look at this : Here

    Another restaurant that you can try, "La brasserie du sud ouest", here's the adress : 275 Cours de la Somme, Bordeaux, phone : 05 56 92 03 06.
    Another good one, "La belle époque", 2 allée d'orléans, Bordeaux, tel : 05 56 79 14 58 (you can eat some coquilles st jacques, foie gras de canard, encornets au piment d'espelette, langoustines, agneau braisé...).

    A "cheese restaurant" : Baud et Millet (this is really rare, never tried this one but it's really specific), 50 cheeses + wine, 19 rue Huguerie, Bordeaux, phone : 05 56 79 05 77.

    And a last one: La Tupina

    If you have some time to spend, you can have a look here to prepare your travel and to see what could be interesting for you to visit.

    I guess you won't stay in the town during 1 month with this heat :)
    So for the beachs, the intersting ones are : "Le bassin d'arcachon", "le Cap Ferret", you can visit the "Dune du Pyla", wich is really nice but La dune du pyla is not a beach. See also Biscarrosse.

    Don't hesitate if you have some more questions :)

  • Comment number 18.

    Oh, forgot one thing, NEVER buy a "baguette" even in our boulangeries, never !

    Only the bread called "tradition", "rétro", or "Campaillette" or something like that, because if you ask a baguette, they will sell you some industrial biiiiip ! (the same kind of baguette as we can see on the picture above, in the article).

    To enjoy the cheese, or the charcuterie, you need the real bread, With some butter if you like.

  • Comment number 19.

    Can someone (French) help me? At the beginning of Raymond Blanc's first Very Hungry Frenchman programme, the narrator said something like 'Food is a product of the earth, the weather, history, people, craft. Five words in English, just one in French.' The word sounded like 'tellois' but I can't find the word anywhere!! What is it, what does it mean and how is the word used - I would love to know. Thanks

  • Comment number 20.

    Wasnt it "terroir" ?

    We say "produits du terroir"

  • Comment number 21.

    Thanks for that Tony. It all makes total sense to me now:-)

  • Comment number 22.

    Thank you Tony. I am a wine lover, so I'll visit the various regions producing Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, bit of Merlot, St Emilion and would like to try the sweet wine Sauterness if time allows - then how it compares to what we have in South Africa! Then of course wine with good cheese & bread can only be a pleasure, but I'll sure try the other local specialities mentioned, including meats and la canelle.

  • Comment number 23.

    We have had a holiday home in the Limousin for over 8 years, making several visits a year. We still find a few restaurants that we like, with food that we like, but fewer than we used to and none local - quite a lot have closed in the past 3 or 4 years.

    I worked in Paris for 5 years, and some of my old favourites there have either closed or have diluted their menu for the benefit of tourists and at the expense of imagination. However in Paris you just have to keep finding new places to try, preferably via friends and colleagues, and there are still plenty of treats in store. For those without friends, there are plenty of web sites containing personal reviews (in French of course), and these suffer from biases and self-importance just like the equivalent sites in the UK, but if a restaurant has lots of recent reviews and most are good, then it should be good.

    In the Limousin, local shops and market stalls have nothing interesting, and the quality is very mixed. Supermarkets rule, but most of them are pretty poor compared with where we live in UK (Milton Keynes). We have to travel into Limoges for the new Cora to find anything unusual in terms of ingredients (by French standards, such as figs, mushrooms, or those strange tomatoes that actually taste of tomato), and even then it's often a wasted journey.

    In general the French seem to only buy seasonal produce, but if they can import bananas and lettuce, I don't see why they can't source more variety while they are at it. Maybe they grow it all themselves, but that's really difficult in a town or city apartment. Whilst many buy at the local market, these are often dull affairs. Ours has a cheese van with as many as 5 different cheeses; a far cry from the cheese vans I used to come across elsewhere several years ago, with a hundred or more. We are no longer able to buy something like "some Brie that will be best tomorrow". It's like Waitrose, with their 3 French cheeses and 47 kinds of cheddar.

    Cheese notwithstanding, I want Waitrose to open a branch in St Junien!

  • Comment number 24.

    Tony, I promise you I've been to many more than 2 or 3 French restaurants recently but share your love for many of the foods you list - and for La Tupina! And I do think there are some great restaurants in Paris still though you have to look a bit harder for them - as you do elsewhere in France.

    Still, I very much enjoyed Raymond's programme - not least for Maman Blanc who is a real trouper - and can't wait to make that Comté souffle tart!

  • Comment number 25.

    I don't really think that this is a French cuisine crisis but rather a world crisis since many countries poor or not have started to adopt the chemical prepared foods and relinquished their original and traditional recipes.
    I wish I could say that I found a lot of traditional foods still prepared in restaurants but sadly the only way to eat one such dish is somewhere in the country side.

  • Comment number 26.

    ME, just be careful because "la cannelle" and "les cannelés" are 2 totally different things.

    The cannelle is the spice, you can find sticks or powder of cannelle.

    The cannelés are the small cakes (really good ;) )

    "Les cannelés"

  • Comment number 27.

    Crap, the HTML doesn't work very well here. I wanted to show you a picture of cannelés. You can find it easily anyway :)


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.