Vive la cuisine française!

Le Big Mac may be on the rise, but a French woman explains why her country’s food culture is still alive and well.

Camille Lepage

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Tuesday night on BBC4 was given over to the topic of French food. More than any other nation, we French regard ourselves as having a superior food culture. Today, France’s relationship with food, like the country itself, is undergoing a period of change – and not always for the better. But I’d still take French cuisine over British food any day.

The history of France’s love affair with food was neatly explained in Andrew Hussey’s televisual essay, France on a Plate, which was originally broadcast in 2009. Hussey traces the evolution of French food since the days of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had the ambition to put himself and France at the centre of the world. Every asset that France could boast with should be as elaborate and sophisticated as possible, including its cuisine. During this era, even an ordinary meal would consist of soup, pheasant, porridge, salad, ham, cakes, fruits and jam, all washed down with a noble wine.

Yet while life at Versailles was a gastronomic paradise, for the have-nots things were a lot less glamorous. While those at court stuffed themselves, the rest of the population had to fight not to starve and were compelled to eat whatever they could find, from whatever vegetables happened to be in season to rats or even bones. But even then, in such dire straits, French people were still cooking and trying new ‘recipes’ by mixing up the food they found.

Throughout the centuries, France has distinguished itself by a rare, high-quality food culture, characterised by inventiveness and grandeur. In fact, France is not merely only a country where the food is good, but a country that believes its food to be simply the best in the world. In France, eating has come to mean more than just a simple gathering for a meal; it became linked to authority and the exhibition of French splendor.

In his thorough exploration of the history of French cuisine, Hussey looks at the creation of restaurants, the strong influence of the 1789 revolution and its famous cooks Careme and Taleran, and at how Napoleon turned food into a secret weapon to conquer Europe. Hussey also deals with the origins of the market in France, the character of traditional local foods and the influence of the country’s former colonies in north Africa on French food. He also looks into the nouvelle cuisine, which offered ‘nothing on the plate and everything on the bill’, as the master chef Paul Bocuse put it.

However, as Hussey concludes, this wonderful culinary heritage is now under threat from American fast food. Today, France is the most profitable market for McDonald’s outside the US. In France this travesty is called malbouffe, literally junk food. French people try their best not to follow the American model in many ways, yet still Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders are threatening one of the characteristics of their culture that the French are most proud of.

While denying the growing influence of fast food would be pointless, it would also be a mistake to assume that traditional French food culture has disappeared – far from it. Hussey points to two extremes: the French elite who can afford to go to posh restaurants and the rest of the people who make do with McDonald’s. But what this misses is the importance of home-made food in France, something common to all social classes.

The term malbouffe does not merely refer to fast food, but to the rise of low-cost food in supermarkets. A French TV documentary, also from 2008, On Est Fouttu, On Mange Trop (‘We are fucked up, we eat too much’) argues that the result is poor health. The film focuses on a poor family that has no choice but to buy junk food. The family’s low income – €2000 (£1,800) per month – has to feed four people, including two teenagers. As a result, the film argues, their diet is poor and makes them fat. At only 11 years old, the little girl is already suffering because of her weight; she is 10 kilos (22 pounds) heavier than most of her friends.

It’s sad but true that many French people look forward to a weekly night out at the burger joint more than any other meal. McDonald’s is certainly a cheap place to share a meal outside the house, for families as well as for teenagers, but the boom of malbouffe means that we French are giving up on our rich food traditions.

Nevertheless, France remains at the heart of global food culture. It’s not all about what we eat, it’s also about the way we do it. Yes, we are fond of food itself, but we also crave the social aspect of eating. We pay a lot of attention to the way we eat, cook and how we share our meals. Lunch and dinner are sacred in France – they are particular moments of the day during which people talk and spend time together. In France, it’s rare to see a person on his or her own in a restaurant, and even rarer to see someone walking and eating at the same time in the streets, sights which are commonplace in the UK.

As a French person, my expectations towards food are high; after a year and half in England, I have never found a restaurant worthy of the name. Prices are lower here, but I’d rather pay more and have the quality I can find back home at any corner of any street. The British do not make food, they heat it. Most of the food you can find in restaurants in the UK has been frozen and is warmed up before being served on a plate.

The English and French clearly have very different ideas about food. The English seem to have one proper meal per week, the Sunday roast dinner, which most of the time is not even made from scratch with fresh vegetables. In France, we tend to have dinner together every night and it’s usually made from scratch. We sit around a table with the TV off and chat. This habit enables us to communicate more, to talk about everybody’s day, and know each other better. That is what French food culture is all about; what is on our plates is, in many ways, just an excuse to get together. It would be a shame if we lost this fine tradition to the hit-and-run, unsociable eating habits so prevalent elsewhere.

Camille Lepage is an intern at spiked.

Patrick West is away.

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