I like French food. It is tasty, expertly prepared and presented. So, this is not a critique of French cooking. Although, perhaps it deserves to be, for in my ten years of living in France I have heard that many derogatory remarks about English cooking (some in jest, some for real) that it could be time for a serious reposte. But I’ll try and refrain from cross-channel swiping and keep negative comments to a minimum – if I can?
Now, what I personally don’t go in for is this arty-cuisine trend of minimalism. You know – the sort where you get a tiny dollup of food on your plate, surrounded by a curly trace of a sticky caramelized sauce, and it’s placed on the table before you as if the waiter is presenting a Monet! Yes, food should look good, but I don’t want to pay through the nose for it and then have to buy a sandwich on the way home. I prefer a good nosh-up for my money.
I’m also, I should add, an Englishman who lives is France with a French partner. Generally, when we have guests, I do the cooking of starters and main courses, whilst she excels in desserts. I do cook French meals. But I also cook English meals, various other national dishes and some home-creations that are well-beyond any nation-state categorizing. No-one has complained about these yet and the plates are normally licked clean – metaphorically speaking!
A strong point to state from the start, in French cuisine’s favour, is the wealth of its regional variety. This includes the bouillabaisse of Marseille, the quiche of Lorraine, the bourguignon of Bourgogne, choucroute from Alsace, tartiflette of the alpine Haute Savoie, truffes and foie gras of The Perigord, cassoulet of the south-west, moules marinières and oysters of Brittany, tapenade or aïoli from Provence… and I haven’t even begun on the desserts, the cheeses and the wine!
So, if you are a food lover, ‘gourmand‘, or student of foreign cooking techniques – France should be on your list of places to visit. There’s no doubt about that.
But, since we’re getting things straight, contrary to popular French opinion, France is not the only place that can serve up a good meal. This may surprise, or annoy, those who believe that France is ‘simply the best’ at everything from football to love-making, political debating to going on-strike, and perhaps they should stop reading now before I lay down some more truths about French food.
The first point to clear up is this word ‘gourmand‘. A translation of this word doesn’t really exist in English, unless you accept ‘food-lover’, so we retain the French ‘gourmand’ to use where appropriate.‘ ‘Glutton‘ is not a synonym, although the line between a ‘gourmand’ and a ‘glutton’ is sometimes rather fine. ‘Hedonistic culinary pleasure lover’, may be one way to put it and though hedonism is as old as any Dionysian orgy, I’m referring to its later arrival on the western european scene. That would be mid-18th century when the catholic counter-reformation kicked in, in reaction to the austerity of protestantism (which declared pleasure to be a sin), and then revelled in excess.
You don’t agree? Look, it’s simple. Today, northern europeans and anglo-saxons on holiday visit monuments and museums, and climb mountains. They take picnics with them and munch sandwiches whilst under attack from wasps, flies and midges. Mediterraneans, and in particular the French, spend mornings studying menus outside restaurants, lunchtimes eating in restaurants, afternoons taking siestas to digest meals eaten in restaurants, and then evenings again eating and drinking in restaurants. That’s the basic difference between the northern and southern european cultures: Abstention vs hedonism. Two opposing concepts that rest on protestant/catholic attitudes to pleasure. Otherwise expressed: This is baroque’s extravagant ostentation as seen in art, architecture, music and food contrasted against a restrained and temperate Calvinist frugality.
1970s anglo-saxon hippy hedonism, by contrast, was frowned upon by the older and more staid members of anglo-saxon societies for being just that: Hedonistic. To the French, it was already a norm. Brigitte Bardot naked on the San Tropez beach? So what? ‘Elles sont belles, les filles’. President François Mitterand having an extra-marital affair with a mistress? So what? This isn’t England and that’s no Profumo affair-type scandal. If a cardinal dies in a Parisien brothel (Jean Daniélou. 1974) – that’s no big deal. French gastronomy being an eating orgy? Of course it is. That’s no crime.
Yet, within this contrast lies the British approach to food: The protestant work ethic of valueing the hard-working (yet prudent), gardener (or allottment holder) who produces a good crop of fresh, organic vegetables fertilized by a well-maintained compost heap. Calm, sensible presbyterians, methodists and quakers were not known for their exuberances. Their outlooks were based on restraint. Then, don’t forget, ‘Dig for Victory’ became a second world war slogan. Everyone did, whilst all who could wield a scythe to harvest the wheatfields did that too. And in these more modern times food is valued for its natural, earthy simplicity with reknowned English chefs from Mrs. Beaton to Delia Smith to Jamie Oliver placing emphasis upon fresh, wholesome food that doesn’t overly strain the household budget – just check out their cookbooks!
So, over spending on culinary luxuries to impress guests is not, in fact, as impressive to a Brit as a tender piece of British beef served with garden-picked peas and meaty gravy. ‘Naughty, but nice’, a cream cake advert once stated, which quite nicely sums up the British feeling of guilt felt when enjoying food to such a degree that it becomes a veritable sensual delight. ‘No sex, we’re British’. Sexy saucy sauces are for the French!
Nevertheless, British culture has become increasingly cosmopolitan. Today, a younger, experimental generation is rebelling against their older generations’ reserves. Consequently, the guilt of indulging in life’s sensual and sensory pleasures has noticeably decreased as British food becomes more and more exotic. Hence, the olden days regular meal of ‘meat and two veg’ has almost disappeared as every ethnic dish from pasta to paella, curry to chilli, souvlaki to sushi now fills up the British stomachs. Us modern day Brits like our spices. We have recipe books from around the world on our bookshelves. And we have the ingredients at hand to knock up a guacamole dip or gazpacho soup in a jiffy.
This, then, is my second point to make. Whilst the French may like to criticise English cooking, they’ve tasted little more of our culinary offerings than a Wimpy bar burger or some soggy fish-and-chips. The equivalent is to compare the whole of French cooking with a wet, floppy crêpe, dripping in ‘première prix nutella’, bought at a quick snack stall at some mid-summer ‘fête foraine’. That’s obviously not a fair comparison, is it? So yes, by denigrating all British food as cheap and nasty these critical French miss the fact that traditional British recipes are as numerous as the French, and that in terms of being cosmopolitan, British cooking is streets ahead.
Streets ahead? Yes! You see, the French tend to feel that eating pasta, taboulé or couscous is being daringly exotic – which they’ll do only as long as the heat is taken out of the spice and the taste watered down. But I’m afraid that’s about as far as most French people will go, in my experience anyway, for their delicate palates are not really designed for any more strongly flavoursome kick. Hence, hot mexican chillis and spicy Indian madras’s are definitely out. Just imagine giving them a vindaloo!
My third point is historical. French food revolves around two poles. There’s the ‘haut-cuisine’ culinary pole with some of the best chefs in the world creating food fit for kings. This is the fine art of cooking being pushed to limits beyond the imaginations of most mere mortals. Think of the excesses of the Chateau de Versailles with its fabulous fountains, mazes, paintings, ceiling frescos, and halls of mirrors – then translate that image into food. That’s the pinnacle of French cooking. We can drop the metaphor too and find this grandiosity in numerous Michelin three star restaurants dotted around France – if we’re willing to pay several hundred euros for a bite to eat! In Britain, on the other hand, top chefs such as T.V stars Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, follow in the Mrs. Beaton/Delia Smith tradition. They are ‘The People’s chefs’, creating practical, non-overly fancy dishes, and they own restaurants affordable to most – even if solely for the ‘special night out’. In France, top chefs are there for the aristocracy, celebrities, financiers and football players. Do you take your special retirement trip, that you’ve saved all your life for, on a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean – or do you visit the Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon? I exaggerate to make my point.
But, coming back down to earth, the other pole to French cooking recalls a more humble reality. Whilst the monarchs were swanning around their chateaux in all their finery and powder puffs, not to mention bankrupting the country by fighting foreign wars they couldn’t afford, the ‘common people’ were not enjoying life quite so much. Just read ‘Les Miserables‘ (Victor Hugo) and you’ll get the idea. Poverty was intense. Survival a trial. Intakes of nourriture to fend off the hunger pangs and stay alive came from any possible source available. Hence snails and frog’s legs ended up on the plate whilst larger animals were stripped to the bone for their meat, fat and grisel. Then their bones too were picked clean, not forgetting the marrow inside. Rabbit, hare, deer, boar. These were treats when the gaming season was in. Birds, and not just game birds, were eaten when caught in nets. Many types of fish, including carp and pike that we English don’t at all go for, graced the evening dinner plate.
But read any account of food eaten in England from the same epoch (eg. Peter Ackroyd’s: London the biography) and you’ll much find the same thing: Pigeons, thrushes, larks, eels, lampreys, pigs feet, cow-heels etc. And I certainly remember my own (English) grandfather tucking into a plate of pigs trotters. However, as England rose from the destitution and rationing of the second world war, such foodstruffs disappeared off the plate; for better or worse. Perhaps this is due to the opening up of foreign trade and the entry of foreign produce into English shops? I personally can’t say. But on going shopping with my grandmother in 1992, I realized how few of the fruit and vegetables on display were unknown to her eg. red and green peppers, kiwi fruit. I can’t speculate further on ‘the why’, perhaps someone else can explain, but it does seem apparent that many previous basic ‘survival foods’ have now gone from the English kitchen.
Nevertheless, in France, these foods have remained, to greater or less degree, depending on region and family income. Here are some examples you might find in a French recipe book today. Apparently, their traditional cuisine is still alive :
Horse meat. Tête de veau.
Can’t eat it myself. Perish the thought
snails: Frog’s legs
slugs with a shell A bit like chicken –
Not too bad with parsley/garlic butter but fiddly
Tripe Brains in black butter
No thank-you. Think I’ll give that one a miss too.
And now we come to the depths of French cooking practice. To those areas not often talked about. First, ‘foie gras gavage’. Foie gras, as any French person will tell you, is NOT a pâté. Well – it is, to us English, or a ‘paste’ at least. But to the French, foie gras stands in a class of it’s own. To be sure, it is a smooth tasty delicacy – if you don’t think too much about how it is made. And how it is made, is by shoving a tube down a goose’s neck through which you force feed it vast quantites of maize until it’s liver bursts and it dies in excruciating agony. Then you eat its ‘fat liver’ i.e. ‘foie gras’. The EU commission have threatened to ban this practice as barbaric, but it is so solidly entrenched into French new year’s celebrations that such a ban would cause another French revolution. If you have a stomach to watch this process and want to see the truth of where foie gras comes from – see below.
And a more in-depth documentary (in French) can be seen here – if you want the complete truth and really want to be sickened.
And if that doesn’t put you off French food altogether, which is not really my intent ( honestly), watch the correct way to eat ‘ortolan’. This is a small song-bird, a ‘bunting’ to be exact, that was much favoured by François Mitterand. It’s consumption is now banned, but it can still be obtained if you know where. See the film.
I do re-iterate though, that my aim with this blog is not to slander French food. As I said at the beginning – I like it. The best ‘gigot d’agneau’ (lamb’s leg) I’ve ever eaten was in a French restaurant in Lyon. It was just so, so tender and I can almost taste it’s succulence now. I guess I’m trying to re-address a balance whilst comparing differences between French and British cuisine. But of course, if any ex-pat English colleagues feel the need for ammunition to respond to French criticisms of our national food, maybe I’ve supplied some of that too. Use it.
Now it’s time for me to eat. A good plate of bangers and mash beckons!