France – culinary hero sought


Jancis let me know that my article last Saturday on the particular charms of our holiday spent not eating out in restaurants in the Languedoc prompted a lot of positive responses. Thank you all. 

These led me to thinking about the particular state of how the French appreciate, and talk about, food and wine as I drove through the pouring rain en route to Carcassonne market at 7.45 one morning last week. Once at the market, all the stall holders were blaming this weather on le marin, the warm, moist wind from the south that brings rain and humid air with it and is the sworn enemy of anyone who wants to hang their washing out to dry, an activity Jancis believes is an integral part of her time here. 

What follows is obviously a sweeping generalisation, but when the French speak about food and wine, they do so with a level of passion, enthusiasm and commitment that is still the equal of, if not greater than, that of those living in any other country. Food and wine are an integral part of their psyche. But at the same time many pronounce on the basis of knowledge, and from a perspective and personal experiences, which are far more limited than many and represent an attitude that is possibly becoming ever more insular.

Let me give an example of this with reference to something that happened to us here that I do not believe would have happened in any other country. An incident that has, incidentally, also proved to be quite expensive.

Our house was built in the late 19th century and has a magnificent tiled roof which is supported from underneath by an equally magnificent structure of interlocking thick wooden beams. They are a real work of art and must have been extremely difficult to piece together 140 years ago. Unfortunately, little insects love them too, in this instance tiny creatures known in French as capricornes which burrow into them and whose eggs turn the wood, however thick and strong, to powder.

No sooner had we arrived than I received a phone call from the mairie of Carcassonne saying that we were due an inspection and to expect a visit from Christophe at 2 pm the following Wednesday. He duly arrived, we clambered into the rafters and it was obvious from the way his screwdriver so easily poked into the wood, that they needed treatment, at a cost, he subsequently calculated, of 6,500 euros.

I kept him waiting for a response, calculating that as a salesman he had been extremely fortunate to find an Englishman ‘at home’ in August, a time when most of his French clients are on holiday. Three weeks later he proposed a significant discount and we agreed to his reduced quote. I then gave him one of our business cards, which has both our websites on it, and wished him ‘bonnes vacances’ as I knew he was due to go away the following day.

That evening, at 8 pm, the house phone rang. It was Christophe and he wanted to tell me that he had just had the opportunity to look at my website, and of course Jancis’s, and he wanted to say what a privilege it was for him to count us, as food and wine writers, among his clients. I thanked him, we had a brief chat and then we said au revoir. Then I thought in which other country could, or would, this have taken place?

The answer is, quite simply, none that I can think of. This is partly, but only to a very small part in my opinion, because the French language is still the language of politesse, far more so than any other language. Whatever Christophe said would certainly not have sounded quite so gracious nor so flattering in English.

But I also believe that the world of food and wine would not have the same resonance in the hearts, minds and spirits of an expert in the treatment of wood-eating insects in any other country, however many new restaurants, pop ups, cookery programmes and baristas each may currently boast. I give my card to many – in the world of the self-employed it still remains the least expensive form of PR – and this is the only time someone has taken the trouble to phone me with such a message.

On the following day, I met a shopkeeper whose comments revealed another aspect of the French approach to food and wine, one that tends to be far more annoying. Although wine is not this particular Frenchman’s metier – in fact there was not a bottle for sale behind his counter or on his shelves – the subject came up and he promptly declared himself an expert. Not on every wine, he added modestly, but on most, and certainly able, in his opinion at least, to distinguish good wine from bad, even though I suspect that he has rarely tasted any wine produced more than ten kilometres from chez lui.

These encounters have been taking place against a backdrop in London of a surfeit of good and interesting French cooking. There was an email from The Lanesborough Hotel announcing the opening of Céleste (what a daft name – doesn’t everyone think of Babar the Elephant?) their new, expensive French restaurant under the aegis of Eric Frechon from their sister Hotel Bristol in Paris. Chris and Jeff Galvin will shortly be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their excellent Bistrot de Luxe on Baker Street. 110 x Taillevent, the less expensive offshoot of this long-established jewel of a Parisian restaurant offering 110 wines by the glass, will open in the autumn in Cavendish Square. And there is certainly no shortage of offers of what appears to be good-value French food on the internet. We are not lacking French restaurants and bistros in the way, I believe, that there is an acute shortage of Italian trattorie outside Italy.

What is required to transform this knowledge, this experience, this obvious enthusiasm into something more dynamic, a more exciting experience? I am not sure. I certainly would not advocate any form of committee even if the current diminished state of French gastronomy were to attract the attention of anyone in the Élysée Palace. They have, sadly, far bigger economic issues to face up to.

Nor is this situation something that can be turned around by a gathering of the good and the great as has happened on occasions in the past. These chefs tend to be too successful in their field, too set in their ways, and too unaware of the changes that need to take place.

But as a Francophile I am concerned for the future of the country’s cooking, particularly as I fear it may be also missing out on its next generation of customers. What is unavoidable, as I have travelled across the south of France this summer, is the continuing realisation that so little of what is on offer that falls into the category of fast, casual and inexpensive is actually French. Much more typical are hamburgers, paella, sandwiches, pizza and cous cous, even though at least with this dish there is the strong historical connection with North Africa.

And as I was contemplating this situation, my mind turned to the extraordinary biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts that I finished reading recently and the strong parallels between the changes that are required to French gastronomy today and those which this outsider from Corsica inflicted on the ancien regime 200 years ago. That is what is required today, I believe: a young French chef who will step forward and bring the joie de vivre back into French gastronomy.