I have been asked how I could have written a book about France without writing about food. I think the answer is simply that I felt it had been done so often before – and in some cases very well – that I didn’t think there was much point. What I did hope to do with this book was to nail some of the things that people don’t know about France, rather than tell them once again what they already know.
I would like to respond to one aspect of the food issue, though. And that is the argument that France’s food culture is dying. This may be true in pockets. Even though France’s highly protectionist laws have prevented the death-by-franchise of her town centres, she has still recognised the need for supermarkets. Even so, I think it’s a little early for us to mourn the passing of French cuisine.
The fashionable thesis, of course, is that France is being invaded by American culture and fast food. Ever since Donald Morrison’s 2007 article in Time, proclaiming that French culture (including her cuisine) was dead, the schadenfreude at the idea of the demise of French art de vivre has been irresistible to Anglo-Saxon journalists. Again, I think that they’re gloating too soon.
In my experience, remarkably little has changed over the past 20 years when it comes to food in France. In Britain, on the other hand, there has been a food revolution, manifested principally through a back-lash against its uncontrolled industrialisation. It is we who have changed. There has been a gastronomic rennaissance in Britain and America over the past 10 years and like all revolutions it is the bourgeoisie that has both driven it and benefited from it. In Britain at least, it’s as if the middle classes have finally woken up to the fact that you can get pleasure out of food. The French have always known this and they still do.
What has changed, though, is a certain drop in standards when it come to the overall quality of restaurants in France. This is a reflection of the much larger problem of commercialisation, which is, I suspect, part of the inevitable capitulation to the lure of the Anglo-Saxon economic model. There is also a kind of gastronomic apartheid between restaurants patronised by locals and those patronised by foreigners. The big problem is that tourists are generally not discerning like locals are and therefore won’t send a dish back to the kitchen if it’s not up to scratch, so standards fall where they can.
Since chefs in Britain conquered television, their power and status has increased in proportion with their earnings. British Gastronomy is now a booming industry and consuming the right food or being seen in the right restaurant is now yet another source of status and glamour. In France, this is still not the case. For the French, food is still one of the more effortless pleasures of daily life. Parisians will still find a restaurant in their quartier that they like, with a head-waiter they like and an ambiance they like and they will stick with it – often for decades (witness that old lady sitting at her table in the corner, feeding morsels to her lapdog or that old bloke dripping soup down his chin). In my local village where I now live in the Cevennes, farmers and artisans eat in the café every day and know what they’re going to get: local meat (no need to trumpet its organic origins; they drive past it running about in the fields on their way to work every day); vegetables that taste of something; local cheese and some clafoutis or tarte – all prepared by somebody who learnt to cook from his mum and who does not feel the need for frills or possessive pronouns on his menu.