Food, not so glorious, food
National stereotypes die hard. Despite France’s poor showing in a recent list of the world’s top 10 restaurants, only one against the Britain’s four, the French still view England as a place with appalling weather and even worse sustenance.
When asked what they feared most about facing the English at Twickenham this year, the captain of the French rugby team replied “the food”. France’s leading lingerie designer, Chantal Thomass, says she dreads going to her factory in Norfolk due to English cooking. ”I have to go on a diet when I get back to Paris,” she says. “I blame the sandwiches. But what else is there to eat?” During the Jamie Oliver campaign for better school dinners, one French friend of mine suggested we needed a similar drive for the adult population.
France, on the other hand, has always had a reputation for wonderful cuisine. The world’s greatest chefs are traditionally French. The French attitude towards eating has always been revered, along with the markets and choice of fresh produce.
It is very easy to wander down to your local town and buy any number of delicacies depending on the season. I find there is no need to plan dinner more than half an hour in advance. You just go and see what’s around. “I love the fact that what I eat is determined by the seasons here and what is good at the greengrocer’s next door to my house,” says Ken Hom, the celebrity chef, who has a home near Cahors.
The French custom of shopping for fresh food every day may be time-consuming, but there is something very satisfying about coming home with a basket filled with fresh goods that you eat straight away.
But try to go out for dinner in rural France and you will often be disappointed. Many restaurants are over-priced, second-rate, badly decorated and lit by searchlights. Added to which the choice is often limited. It seems the foodie revolution that has hit England in the last ten years has yet to reach rural France. Basically the choice is French food or more French food. Much of it is frozen. And even though France has this wonderful reputation for food, I have heard several people complain that they have had the worst meals of their lives here.
The chef and author John Burton-Race spent six months in south-western France researching his book and TV series, French Leave. “During that time I drove 36,000 miles and ate in literally hundreds of restaurants,” he says. “I would say maybe half a dozen were good. The rest were rubbish. If we served food like that in England we’d be shut down. They show no imagination and the choice is so limited. Basically it’s duck, duck, duck or duck.”
Burton-Race finds eating out in England a better option. “I love France and if I can afford to I will probably end up there,” he says. “But in terms of eating out we have far more variety, the quality is better and the prices are good. And it’s not even as if we have the luxury of fresh melons, asparagus and all the other wonderful fresh produce the French markets offer. I don’t think the French restaurateurs have any excuse. They don’t seem to have advanced at all since haute cuisine days.”
Burton-Race concedes that the low quality could in part be due to the 35 hour week which has led to increased costs. “Restaurants are hiring 30% more staff because nobody is doing any work,” he says. A French friend of mine says the locals in rural France aren’t that discerning, so restaurants can get away with it. “They’ve been eating under-cooked duck here for hundreds of years and can’t seem to get enough of it,” he says.
Laurent Pourcel, chef and co-founder of the two-Michelin-starred Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, defends French regional cuisine. “We have always had great gastronomic areas in France but here in the Languedoc, for example, we were seen as a poor relation,” he says. “But I think quality is finally improving throughout regional France.”
Pourcel, who recently opened a restaurant in Piccadilly called W’ Sens, is not worried by France’s low standing in the top ten restaurants list. “You have to be very wary of fads,” he says. “Remember that French cuisine has been around for decades and has a lot of history behind it. It is here to stay. We will continue along our path and always be extremely important.”
Yet even he admits that eating out in London is more interesting than eating out in Paris.
No longer will you be able to chose which doctor you go to in France. It was always one of the great things about living here that you could pick and chose your GP according to your mood. This will all stop on July 1st and anyone (apart from some exceptions such as pregnant women and children) that is part of the French healthcare system should state their preferred doctor by then. The initiative is part of the social security’s money-saving drive and will stop people from getting several opinions on the same ailment. To register with the doctor of your choice, you need to take the relevant form with you and state your allegiance. If, like me, you threw the relevant form away, you can go onto www.ameli.fr and download another one. For more information call the social security helpline in France on 0820 77 33 33.
Right to vote?
In reply to those of you who have emailed asking if you can vote in the upcoming referendum on the European constitution, the answer is no. As a resident foreigner in France you have the right to vote in municipal elections and that’s all. As my village mayor said: “It’s we French who will decide whether we want to adopt the European constitution.” When I asked him what he was going to vote he looked at me as if I’d asked him what planet we’re on. “Non, of course,” he replied.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019