July 24, 2014 by Emma Bentley
My God! What is going on? Dieu, it seems the anglo-saxon press is getting over-excited after finding a new weapon with which to bash the French.
The UK were quicker to pick up on it, but the US have swiftly caught on. After all, bashing the French is such a deeply entrenched past-time that merely mentioning les français has the power to rouse even the most nonchalent of Stoics. The only thing is that nowadays, we’ve moved from the battlefields onto the culture pages of online journals.
No longer is it enough to talk about the economy, claiming that within the next five years the UK will have overtaken France as second largest economy in Europe. (As an aside, I actually find it more surprising that this is not already the case.)
However, this time, you can practically see the editors rubbing their hands together in glee. “Let’s get the French where it most hurts!” Their cuisine.
The new “fait-maison” law has provided the impetus for a new wave of articles. First on the BBC and twice in the Guardian (here and here) and then in the New York Times and a whole host of other US platforms.
Simply speaking, it’s true. A chef who can ping a boeuf bourgignon in a microwave faster than he can chop an onion is not someone I want to be cooking for me. Especially if I’m paying good money for that meal. It constitutes a massive problem – especially at the lower end of the restaurant industry – which, as we rosbifs have been quick to point out, this law woefully fails to address.
Yet what bugs me is how we then manage to extrapolate this problem to talk about French cuisine in its entirety.
Barbecued lamb, artichoke, sardine, glasswort, tiny gherkins. Café Sillon in Lyon. I would eat my hat if any of that turns out to have been pre-prepared and heated in a microwave.
France is still a heavily agricultural country. (Certainly compared to the UK which barely produces as much as a single potato anymore.) The richness of its produce, alongside the fact that the French really do eat anything, means that the breadth of possibility here is astounding.
Laurent is a winemaker in the Loire. He’s also an accomplished home cook. He grows his own vegetables and picks wild flowers and mushrooms in the fields and forests. I’m using some of his dishes as examples of fresh local crops, used simply and seasonally.
Haddock Salad. Idiotically simple, but breathtakingly beautiful.
Next: a salad of wilted spinach, toasted walnuts, pickled & roasted onions, fresh goat cheese. Less pretty, but I want to eat it. Stat.
Admittedly, unless they’re going to go all Robin Crusoe on us aka Alain Passard, the Parisian chef does not have all this on his doorstep. Rungis and Metro are hardly adequate substitutes. There are still good restaurants in Paris who go that extra bit further to serve good-quality, fresh produce but we, the clients, should be ready to spend anywhere upwards of 30 euros on a three course evening meal in these establishments. How is it possible that restaurants offering a 12 euro prix fixe menu are still in business? If we couldn’t even buy our meal in a supermarket for that price, how is a restaurant supposed to pay its rent, staff and bills too? (With its lightning quick turnover of tables, Chartier is the exception which proves the rule.)
Despite what we read in the media, the problem is not due to the French people’s inability to cook. It’s largely down to the laziness of certain restaurateurs, faced with increasing overheads and cheap, easy alternatives. A black and white saucepan with a hat on is not going to make an ounce of difference. Ultimately, until we realise the real value of our meals and start voting with our feet, I doubt anything is going to change.