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French food - boring? Yes, according to the Daily Telegraph

The British Daily Telegraph had an interesting article on French food:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/des...

The comments section afterwards is also worth a read. Many commenters had lived in France and agreed with the article's premise and added that the quality of typical French restaurant was mediocre, but supermarkets had very good quality food on offer.

So much of the discussion on this forum is geared towards the higher end Parisian restaurants, understandably enough. And whenever we travel to France I've always done research ahead and we eat very well, so I don't know what the situation really is like for run of mill places. For the experts out there, would you agree with the writer that the bog standard restaurants are worse than even (gasp) comparable restaurants in the UK? The arguments the writer makes against French restaurants is not just the quality of food, but the lack of imagination in the food itself, at least compared to the apparently much more dynamic food scene in the UK.

Any thoughts?

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  1. The Colonel Blimps who read the Telegraph aren't really very food-conscious. And obviously neither is the author of this article. I do agree that some provincial areas can be very hidebound but Paris is a hot-bed of innovation and creativity. Just have a look at John Talbott's blog and the pictures that scream creativity. Not just a couple of places but hundreds. The London scene is indeed dynamic but can't really match Paris for quality and quantity.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Parnassien

      "Just have a look at John Talbott's blog and the pictures that scream creativity."
      Thank you Parnassien. Things are hardly dead here despite the NYT Mag article declaring that the center of cuisine in the world had moved to Las Rosas or Copenhagen.
      I just got back from two weeks in Tuscany and while it was wonderful, it wasn't the same.

      1. re: John Talbott

        Yes, I agree with you, although in general I prefer central Italian and southern French food to that found "above the Loire", but that is a question of the taste profile and ingredients that appeal to me most.

        One thing I found disappointing when studying in Italy was the quality of most bread. Although there is crap American bread here too, it is very easy to find proper baguettes in Montréal.

        American friends, I don't want to insinuate that all bread in the US, or North America in general, is crap! I'm sure you know what I'm referring to - Henry Miller famously described it decades ago.

    2. My experience is like yours in that I'm generally careful enough to ensure we eat well when in France with friends and family.

      But I also eat out with clients and counterparties at many places not of my choosing, and on this account, my 2 cents would be that as Paris is to London food-wise, so are Marseilles and Lyon are to say, Edinburgh and Glasgow .

      That is to say, vastly better in relation to ambitious cooks working in different styles of establishment and whose cuisine is informed by tradition, modernity and other cultures; a robust network of suppliers, many of whom are non- or semi-industrial in scale; and demanding local diners, not all of whom have hedge-fund budgets.

      I've also eaten very very well in even smaller centres (Dijon, Nice), and by no means confined to 'trad favourites' either.

      But also oh yes, it is also entirely possible to get stranded in the country-side on a Sunday night with a blob each of an unidentifiable stew and potatoes, both probably from a packet.

      1 Reply
      1. re: shakti2

        In fact, in many cases, you wish the food was from a packet.

      2. There is a common misunderstanding that because France is (one of) the country of the best food, it is (one of) the best countries for food. I understand as much as anyone the need to write weekly columns and create controversy -- for instance the need to link the regulation mania and the low average quality of food. In that sense, I'm sympathetic to the author.

        But France has never been a country where people eat well or where your average bistrot is good. Not even your average supermarket necessarily carries quality products (though it varies widely from one region to the next and chicken still tend to be better way better than anywhere else). It's a country where you can eat fabulously *if* you know where to go. And that's true from the basic bistrot (which, unlike what the article says, tends to carry couscous on the menu, the most popular dish in France) to the fancy restaurant. On average, I would totally agree that restaurant food is better, and of better quality, in many countries, possibly the UK, definitely Germany, obviously Italy. I'm talking about stopping at a random place for food.

        As for innovation, that's where the point is most bogus. I just had a good roast chicken from my local market (in Saint-Sauveur en Puisaye), and the fact that it wasn't new was really no problem. I worry about crap food way more than I do about non-novel recipes.

        That you can eat cuisines from all over the world in London is saying that London is London -- a city where the whole world comes and stays as themselves, whereas any lady who stays a couple of days in Paris turns into somewhat of a parisienne.

        Plus, I wouldn't bet that the same thing (restaurants from all over the world) could not be done in Paris, though I'm sure the "authenticity" factor would be less.

        Also, complaining at the same time that the French don't adopt new cooking methods and that they do a lot of sousvide is inconsistent.

        8 Replies
        1. re: souphie

          "But France has never been a country where people eat well or where your average bistrot is good."

          I agree with all of your post except this. When I first read this sentence I thought "you're much younger than me, my friend, you probably never experienced that what you're describing is a recent trend." But now I'm even surprised that you should write this. Surely you've some notion, even a second-hand notion, of a time - say, until 40 years ago - when France was a country where good, cheap food was all over the place, and great food was affordable and easy to find nearly everywhere. This is not a myth. Of course France used to be a country where most people ate well.

          Then it proceeded to consistently shoot itself in the foot and now we're here.

          1. re: Ptipois

            I agree, Pti, that this is an odd statement. But I don't think you have to go back 40 years!

            I traveled mostly in provincial France from 1984 to 1999, and I found at the very least the breads, cheeses, and seasonal produce to be of very high quality. I've had an impressive number of memorable meals in rather ordinary surroundings.

            I suppose I just got lucky, but this was a typical experience: we arrived in Ambert from getting off the plane in Lyon, right in the middle of lunch. Despite the lively festival going on, the place was like a ghost town except for the clinking of silverware and small chatter, mostly coming from private residences it seemed. We walked into a 'bar lyonnais' and they asked us if we would like to have 'their lunch.' Curious, we sat down and they proceeded to bring us a big bowl of tomato salad with lardons. Then followed a platter of haricots vert sizzling with garlic, pommes frites, and another platter of roast beef, bubbling with pools of fat, the thinly sliced browned meat draping over the edges of the platter. Fresh fruit and nuts for dessert. Near our table was a road construction crew on break. As we made our way from auvergne through provence, the cote d'azur and on to Italy, this scenario played out multiple times, whether it was eating at a health food shop in Menton or on a farm in Provence, or even cooking ourselves in a gite from produce brought at the market. When we got to Italy, there was a bit of culture shock as the prices went up and so did the austerity. Unelss you had a lot of money to spend, the same amount of dollars for that lunch in Ambert got us a green salad and some average pizza. The tomatoes (with lardons in auvergne, with tuna on the cote d'azur) transformed into a bowl of undressed lettuce the moment we settled down near Portofino.

            This held mostly true for future trips to le pays catalan, la thierache, champagne, and lorraine, the huate-savoie, burgundy, normandie and the marais poitevin. We were faced with carefully prepared micro-regional cuisine, whether it was sourced from a traiteur, market, or restaurant. When we cooked for ourseleves, the selection at the market was impressive.

            I do have to say when we visited my co-worker's father in Prades (he with a raspy, weathered voice, wearing a beret), he carefully took out a pocket knife, sliced off a piece of baguette ...and pronounced it inferior to what he used to get. This was right before we all went out mushroom hunting in a nearby forest.

            1. re: Ptipois

              I'm younger than both of you (I think)... But my step-mother often recalls how when she came 30 years ago to Paris, she could just go anywhere and the food would be good (at the very least), and how now it will probably be mediocre...
              Thankfully her stepson is a bit food obsessed and she now rarely goes "anywhere" when she comes here.

              1. re: Ptipois

                I suppose that this is an eternal observation (and not merely about France). People who knew Paris in the 1920's complained in the 1960s that food had gone off tremendously and that it was hard to "find one of those meals that makes you sit up and take notice[anymore]"

                Fifty years ago, when I first essayed Paris, I thought things were pretty good. A few years later, in my teens and early twenties, the countryside was rife with delights. Need to stop back soon and see if I agree with the laments but, based on trends I have seen in New Orleans, I think this may be a universal lament that comes with age which, of course, is the only thing that permits the observation in the first place.

                1. re: hazelhurst

                  "Fifty years ago,"
                  Ah those were the days. The real Halles, baguettes, steak/frites, tomatoes, wines in unlabelled bottles - but there were also a lot of canned petit pois, potted foie gras and crappy tarts.

                  1. re: John Talbott

                    All true..and although it was a couple more years for me, I recall those calva vendors who were endangered within twenty years. But we can go down this path all day.

                    1. re: hazelhurst

                      "calva vendors....But we can go down this path all day."
                      No, let's go down this path.

                      1. re: John Talbott

                        Just thinking about those little carts in Normandy makes me weepy with nostalgia. I think the Daily Telegraph writer is far too young to know what we are talking about, let alone the old debates about whether the cream sauces of the(say) 1960s were different because the dairy was refrigerated all the way into town. There was a school that held that the milk and cream soured slightly en route in 1910-1920 (I don't know the cut off) and that the taste was altered by better hygiene and transportation. Even as a child I thought it was a delightful fight to watch.

            2. the Telegraph appears to positively shiver with delight at even the smallest opportunity to badmouth anything remotely connected to France.

              I don't even bother to click anymore, because I know that it will be a shred of truth, fanned and magnified to the most horrid possibly-perceivable proportions, with enough hyperbole and yellow journalism to sicken Pulitzer, Hearst, AND Erwin Wardman (who coined the phrase)

              1 Reply
              1. re: sunshine842

                Yes, it was a ludicrous article, and one that could be written without setting foot in any restaurants in London, Paris, or any other British or French villages, towns or cities.

              2. Ho hum; guess it's summer again. Slow news months.

                1. Pot-boiler French food articles in the Daily Telegraph boring? Indeed.

                  1. Well, my recent visit to Bordeaux must have been in the Twilight Zone. I ate one high-end dinner, which was excellent. The rest of the time, I just started looking at menus when it came time to eat, and settled on what sounded most appealing. Mostly ate white asparagus, prepared various ways, and local fish. Never had anything less than a "good" meal; many were memorable.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: pikawicca

                      Besides being a lovely city, Bordeaux is a great eating town. You did well.

                      1. re: Parigi

                        Not just in Bordeaux City. Also had a great lunch in Cadillac, and a stupendous dinner (Lamproie) in
                        St. Emilion.

                    2. Roland - I actually think the UK is a bit deluded about the quality of the restaurant scene across the country. Certainly its much improved but it is coming from such a low base. Some big cities have a few good places but even London is a bit thin if you compare to other big cities, and if you go to most other cities you soon struggle.

                      So to compare and contrast to France - I am afraid its still night and day. Odds are pretty good you can get a choice of decent feeds in any area of France, and usually there are some pretty stellar options.

                      Certainly there is a lot of poor French restaurants across France but the ratio of good to bad is still pretty favourable compared to blighty.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: PhilD

                        Not many miles separate Cornwall from Brittany, but I have a pretty clear idea which place I'd rather be to get something good to eat.

                        1. re: Steve

                          Yes, both those Celtic peoples were conquered, and both suffered cultural and other losses thus, but from a culinary standpoint, it was better to have been conquered by the French (or their forebears). Cornish is the Celtic language most closely related to Breton. http://www.cornwallinfocus.co.uk/lang...

                          1. re: lagatta

                            Although didn't the French (Normans) conquer the UK in 1066 and soon after Cornwall but Brittany didn't succumb to the a French until 1488...?

                            Maybe the Bretons were lucky they were conquered after Taillevent had been the chef in the French royal kitchens (in the 1300's). And by then the UK's anti European stance started to form so they resisted this French "nouvelle" cuisine.

                      2. I visit France most years - invariably to the departments of the Nord, Somme and Pas de Calais. It's an area of small towns and villages. Often there is little choice where one is to eat and it is very easy to eat poorly. However, I'd suggest that, in general, restaurant quality (and price) is going to be better in a small French town than in a British town of similar size. Of course, there will be exceptions. That said, I can think of two restaurants in the same Pas de Calais village where the food is good but the menu has been unchanged for years so, in that respect, may be regarded as boring. British bistro type places are, in my experience, more likely to update their menus to reflect seasonality, etc.

                        On the other hand, it is possible to make other comparions. For example, if I eat at restaurants on the French Channel coast, I'm likely to see excellent seafood, usually locally landed. Whereas, a few miles away on the other side of the Channel, availablity and quality is simply not there.

                        1. What's better: Indiana or Garfunkel's?

                          1. Since I haven't eaten in the UK in decades, I'll save my "impossible!" comment until after I visit London next spring.

                            However, we do not serve kidney pie, spotted d*ck or peach crumble here in France. We prefer dishes like mouclade, steak au poivre and tarte tatin.

                            12 Replies
                            1. re: collioure

                              Marmiton.org has 657 reasons to dispute that no one serves crumble.

                              http://www.marmiton.org/recettes/rech...

                              Kidneys are absolutely on the menu (and in the market stalls and supermarket shelves

                              )

                              ETA I agree that it's not really "traditional" per se, but I've had pretty tasty crumbles in a number of restaurants.

                              1. re: sunshine842

                                As soon as the first decent peaches appear, I start making peach crumbles almost continuously. I light the next peach crumble with the end of the former.

                                1. re: Ptipois

                                  There's a good reason crumbles have spread across the channel!

                                  1. re: Ptipois

                                    I have some Georgia peaches on my counter awaiting their crumbly, oaty blanket.

                                  2. re: sunshine842

                                    I've had pretty tasty
                                    Clafoutis aux cerises en crème d'amande façon Roger Vergé
                                    Larme de chocolat aux griottines Michel Trama
                                    and even more common desserts in France like Profiterolles, Paris-Brest and Napoleons

                                  3. re: collioure

                                    I don't believe I've ever seen peach crumble in the UK. Crumble made from fruits we grow but not fruits we don't - generally speaking Crumble would usually be an autumn or winter dessert and, perhaps, a bit heavy for summer when peaches are around.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      No more heavy than a pie -- I'm trying to remember -- do you do buckles or cobblers?

                                      Crumbles are probably most commonly apple, but berry and peach are lovely, too.

                                      (just so we're not lost in translation -- crumble refers to the topping, which is a mix of oats, butter, brown sugar, and nuts -- quite literally crumbled over the top of the fresh fruit, then baked until the topping is browned and crispy)

                                      1. re: sunshine842

                                        British crumble is most usually apple, followed by pear. And, no, we don't really do cobblers, although you will see them on restaurant menus from time to time. That said, you see all sorts of culinary acquisitions from other countries on menus - brownies sit happily alongside creme brulee and Eton Mess. Happily, the days of Britons thinking the only good food was French food are long since gone.

                                      2. re: Harters

                                        In the US food press and on menus both here and in France, crumbles, both sweet and savory, have been super-trendy for a couple of years.

                                        1. re: mangeur

                                          In France the crumble has been trendy for about 10 years or so. It might be said that it has become a French thing. And peaches are a favorite garnish, as well as rhubarb/strawberry, apple and all sorts of fruits.

                                          My topping is 2/3 ground almonds, 1/3 flour, as much butter as flour and (not too much) sugar.

                                          You'll seldom find a salon de thé in France that does not have some sort of crumble waiting on the shelf.

                                      3. re: collioure

                                        As has already been pointed out peach crumble is not common in the UK .I've never seen it only, apple, rhubarb and plum.Also I assume you mean steak and kidney pie which to my mind, when done properly is the best savoury pie there is (though I'd rather have it as a steak and kidney pudding.)
                                        FWIW if you asked me to find somewhere in London that serves spotted dick I'd struggle. Finding steak au poivre or tarte tatin OTOH would be a piece of cake.

                                        1. re: Paprikaboy

                                          Paprika - you beat me to it. Steak and kidney pudding with good suet crust is a thing of wonder and a real classic. And Peach crumble is probably more American than a classic apple or rhubarb crumble. And Spotted Dick, Jam Rolly Polly, and Steamed Treacle Sponge are justifiably celebrated British puddings. Add to these the revival of British smoke houses for salmon and other seafoods and the renaissance of the British cheese and artisan meat industries (pork pies, black puddings etc) and you have a lot of good things to try.

                                          But as you say you still need to search these out, and Britain isn't as good as France yet. But Collioure needs to dust off his research and move on from such tired and oft repeated stereotypes.

                                          Maybe the gist of the Telegraph article should have been that France is frittering away it's food heritage and traditions. It's following the trend in the UK from the 70's when monolithic factory production replaced lots of great local producers and artisans. The change in the UK was the U-turn from the industrialization with grassroots campaign groups like CAMRA (campaign for real ale), the real bread campaign, new cheeses etc.

                                          I am not certain the "home made" restaurant trade logo is quite the same - it has the feel of "poacher turned gamekeeper" as it seems to have too much compromise and some standards that are designed to help restauranteurs rather than reassure the public. Obviously some prepared foods are better bought in, but I think the dividing line has been drawn to generously.