No year abroad jaunt in France would be complete without a trip to Paris, famously branded as city of love, city of lights, and host to more than 25 million tourists every year.
Sightseeing is all very well – yes we visited the Louvre, yes we went to Notre Dame, and we even went a little further afield, westwards to Versailles and core-bound down to the eery catacombs of Paris (highly recommended) – but this being my third visit, the trip constituted an unmissable opportunity to visit the city with, this time, the intention of tasting my way around the famous rues and ruettes of the great capital.
But unfortunately, I must admit to being a little disappointed. With everyone around the world catching the travel bug and visiting every corner of the globe there is to see, I’ve long given up on the fantasy of really discovering somewhere new and unexplored, and of all the cities in the world Paris is probably the most explored of them all, so I was never expecting to stumble across a true hidden gem. However, what really shattered the illusion was having to come to terms with what was actually left on offer: a wide selection of either astronomically-priced and snooty “bistrots” – the kind that charge you a fortune for an artistic smear of some mediocre sauce with service about as warm as the tepid, watery soup they just set down in front of you – or countless characterless fast food joints, complete with fluorescent lighting, plastic tables and photos of their decidedly unappetizing dishes.
Recently I’ve found myself getting more and more frustrated with how the French look down their noses on English food. In their eyes we are a population of culinary simpletons, without a shred of savoir faire when it comes to gastronomy and practically unable to tell the difference between an aubergine and an orange. And yet I can’t help but notice how devoid France seems to be of genuinely good food. I’ve been lucky enough to have rooted out some little gems here and there along the way, but the country seems to be in dire need of independent, decently-priced, good-quality establishments serving simple food done well. From what I gather, the bouchons of Lyon used to be fine upholders of these kinds of restaurants, but even their good name is being dragged through the dirt by profit-hungry restaurateurs who realised what deceivingly branding their sub-standard restaurant as a bouchon authentique lyonnais could do for their business.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing is that not only has the standard of food served in France’s numerous restaurants slipped to such an appalling level, but that they have managed to do so in spite of the incredible food on offer. Market day in France is quite simply a pleasure to behold, with stands bursting to the brim with local produce, and the country has equally managed to maintain the age-old tradition of buying independently: butchers’ and bakers’ flourish as ever, powered by the families who refuse to give in to the allure of the supermarket which sadly seems to have bewitched the hearts of the English.
On the other hand, to put it quite simply, I believe that the quality of food served in British establishments has skyrocketed over the last decade or so. Horse-meat scandal aside (in any case, my idea of a good restaurant is one that prefers home-made meat products as opposed to Tescos finest) the food philosophy has changed: people are actually takng an interest in what they are eating, where it comes from, how it was prepared and who cooked it. In a nutshell, we are slowly learning to really appreciate good food. Don’t get me wrong, there still remains a huge amount of work to be done – the price, produce and general mindset concerning market and independent sale is still in need of serious improvement – but on the whole it is my firm belief that the country has made a real breakthrough.
And so we are now confronted with a strange situation: On one side of the Channel we have England struggling to source the ingredients and produce to support the new food philosophy being pioneered, whilst on the other side France is abundant in the stuff, but seems to have forgotten how to use it. As a result, it appears the two nations have something to learn from one other: Britain would do well to take a leaf out of France’s book and reinvent its markets, creating an affordable environment where people can actually carry out their weekly shop, whereas the French desperately need to rediscover the love of good food they seem to have lost to the English. Unfortunately the country’s greatest hindrance is its denial that they have actually lost it. The ridiculous French pride and refusal to accept the gradual decline of food standards is the only thing ruining the country’s greatest export (and its reputation): simply good food.