Culinary sins may be committed in France, but it's still the touchstone for kitchen bliss, writes Fergus Henderson.
France for a long time was the benchmark of culture in Europe, not least of all as far as eating is concerned. It was France that gave us not only the word "restaurant", but perhaps its first legal definition. Just look at Le Grand Véfour, near the Palais Royal in Paris, which conforms to early edicts insisting that a restaurant had to have a certain amount of mirror and a clock.
But now the French government is having to pass laws that will insist not on the correct décor, but on a restaurant displaying a notice saying whether the food it serves is actually cooked on the premises, or whether it has been using bought-in, pre-prepared food.
I am heartened by the news that Brake Bros, doers, in my mind, of the culinary devil's work with frozen catering meals that have nothing to do with place or season, has not reached Australia. Not so in France. Adding insult to injury, Souillac, the home of Vieille Prune (my favourite eau de vie) now has a huge Brake Bros depot. Sacrilège! Sacré bleu! The great Alain Ducasse, who certainly does not buy this stuff, has an even more pessimistic view of the state of French kitchens, claiming that the use of such merde glacé is rife across France.
Robert Fresson's wonderful book The Taste of France contains some of the finest food porn in existence. There are marvellous pictures of buttery, rose-cheeked ladies holding wonderful tarts. There's a pork chop and prunes that has been the cause of many a fantasy, the whole topped off by groaning cheeseboards and old Burgundy wine. The illusion was shattered for me, though, when I was told that to create this picture of "authentic" culinary France, Fresson had to travel with a suitcase stuffed with his own props: wooden spoons, old glasses, battered boards, tarnished copper pots and so forth. He was giving us the France we all dream about, but it came out of the boot of his car. In terms of equipment, I think the most telling element of this culinary malaise en France seems to be expressed in the square plate. Instead of improving the cooking they buy these square plates on which even good food looks uncomfortable.
But it's by no means all bad. Driving through France at lunchtime on our way to Burgundy about 10 years ago, we made the decision to stop at the first restaurant on the left. We did so. An extremely dour dining room: very promising. Carottes râpées to start, then stewed tripe with tomatoes and, to top this off, a chocolate ice. Splendid. You would feel fairly anxious if, just about anywhere else in the world (let alone back home for me in Britain), you decided on the first-restaurant-on-the-left method as a way of choosing your lunch - if not foolhardy. Vive la France.
Another unexpected lunch, in the Auvergne on a walking holiday with my chum Ben. (Interestingly enough, this was also about 10 years ago; could France's cultural decline have been this rapid?) It was the first day and we had packed a picnic - a Cantal cheese firm enough to travel, a French stick, a litre bottle of rough red wine with a screw-top, and a bar of dark chocolate. So far so good. But we happened across a little inn and, finding it irresistible, we popped in for a pastis. There we found all the local farmers having lunch. It took less than a moment to forget our picnic, and we were soon feasting on cold beef and green beans. Those beans! Perfectly overcooked with a mustardy dressing. They were followed by a grand pot-au-feu Auvergne, then cheese, all eased down by light local red wine.
We got talking to the establishment's chef, who was cooking the local offal specialty for the evening - some kind of braised balls of tripe. Once again our resolve was broken and we booked in to the inn for dinner as well. A fantastic meal followed, and a good soak. It still goes down as one of the top days I have ever lived.
I'm certainly not going to argue the point with Alain Ducasse. It's easy to knock a country's cooking (especially when it has been so pompous in the past), but France remains a touchstone for a life less ordinary lived in the kitchen and at the table, so let's take more time to celebrate what they get right than what they've let slide.
Illustration: Lara Porter