Jacques Chirac, president of France, may be dreading the food at this year’s G8 summit in Edinburgh, but the first thing I do when I arrive in London from Paris is head for a decent meal that doesn’t include body parts of a duck.
I have lived in France for five years. It’s true that you can eat beautifully in France. But I have also endured the worst meals of my life in Jacques Chirac’s country.
His stereotype of English cooking, rather like his economic model, is out of date. It is no surprise that France polled so badly in a recent list of the world’s top 10 restaurants. Only one was French, against Britain’s four. However, the French continue to view Britain as a place where the weather is bad and the food even worse.
President Chirac is not alone in his disdain. In a recent interview when asked what he feared most about playing the English at Twickenham, the French rugby captain replied “the food.” A French friend of mine says he hates travelling to England because of the cooking. “What is there to eat if you hate fish and chips?” he once asked me.
The answer is: a lot. You can start with Japanese food, or Chinese, Indian, or Italian, and those are just the foreign options, none of which will be available to you in most of France. It is true that the choice of food in Britain used to be limited and dreary. But the foodie revolution that has swept through the country means that it easier to eat well in Edinburgh than it is in Toulouse. French cuisine, rather like most of its wine industry, has failed to develop.
Many restaurants in France are over-priced, second-rate, badly decorated and lit by searchlights. The choice is French food and more French food. In fact that’s on a good day. Normally it’s “duck, duck or duck”, according to the author and chef John Burton-Race.
Burton-Race, who spent six months in south-western France researching his book and TV series, French Leave, drove 36,000 miles during his time in France and ate in literally thousands of restaurants. “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.”
Even though France has this wonderful reputation for food, many people complain that they have had the worst meals of their lives here. I know I have. I have a healthy appetite and it is rare that I find something inedible. But present me with a monkfish that is so well cooked it could have been cremated and even I lose the will to eat.
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.”
Another big disadvantage of living in France is that ingredients from all over the world are unavailable. It’s easy to pick up a breast of duck or a baguette. But try to find anything vaguely international and you’ll go home empty handed.
Laurent Pourcel, chef and co-founder of the two-Michelin-starred Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, who recently opened a restaurant in Piccadilly called W’ Sens, says you shouldn’t write France off. “Remember that French cuisine has been around for decades and has a lot of history behind it. It is here to stay,” he says. “We will continue along our path and always be extremely important.”
Yet even Pourcel admits that eating out in London is more interesting than eating out in Paris.
Jacques Chirac may be right not to trust the British, but he should no longer sneer at our cooking. It is dynamic, diverse and innovative. With a few notable exceptions, just about everything that French cooking isn’t.