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His stereotype of English cooking, rather like his economic model, is out of date.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.
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. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
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
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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