French restaurant food is supposed to be one of the great wonders of the world and I have just spent a couple of weeks in France: not once did I eat an even half-decent, let alone memorable, meal. The could-not-give-a-damn attitude of the staff added insult to injury and the bills they made me pay were a disgrace – roughly €50 for a simple three-course meal and half bottle of the cheapest local red. It was not, I assume, even personal. Everyone, as far as I could see, got dished up the same rubbish. When I googled: “Why is French restaurant food so bad?” it flagged up 267 million results. Naturally, in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards this year, produced by Restaurant magazine, not a single French restaurant was in the top ten.
So bad were the French restaurants during my recent stay that I began pining for a Big Mac and posing surreal questions like: what, in fact, is the difference between a tranche of terrine de veau at €12.50 euros a time and a can of bog standard dog food, or between two tiny slices of foie gras de canard at €14.50 euros and a petite can of deluxe dog food?
But here’s the funny thing, the terrine and the foie gras were the best things to be had in the restaurants of Frèjus, between Cannes and Saint-Tropez, where I was. For a simple reason: those restaurants have nothing to do with their creation because they buy them in. In other words, no French chef has had anything to do with them.
The food writer Anissa Helou says: “I lived in Paris and had with my then lover a property in the south west of France in the mid 1970s and used to go there a lot. What was great then is that you could walk into almost any restaurant and eat wonderful food.
“I wouldn’t take the risk anymore of eating in places I don’t know in France because it is almost certain the food will be very poor.”
I love France and have been there many times. One of the great experiences of my life was a nine-course meal in 1969 at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Beg Meil on the Atlantic coast of Brittany near Quimper. I was 11 years old. Ever since, one way or another, I have tried to relive the magic of that exquisite experience. Sadly, however, probably during the 1980s, French restaurants lost the plot.
During my stay in Fréjus I ate in at least a dozen restaurants. But it was always the same old story – the same old ennui. I had to make sure I arrived before 9pm or else I would not even get served. As soon as a French restaurant opens, its staff are in closing mode, it seems, and at 9pm they start whipping the table cloths away like matadors and stacking chairs as if the town were about to be struck by a hurricane or an invading army.
The menus were as limited as the quality of the food. I did not once see, let alone eat, a decent fresh raw vegetable, such as a tomato. What was offered instead was always a pallid and flaccid supermarket version of the real thing which to make matters worse had inevitably languished too long in the fridge. I did not once see or eat a decent cooked vegetable. In Fréjus a so-called speciality is ratatouille: it was like something extracted by trowel from a compost heap.
Meat? Maybe. If you must. Better than the frozen farmed fish, I suppose. But it is a toss up. The Magret de Canard – Fréjis style – I had one night made me think of the sole of a shoe melded with the foot of a man who is not well.
The French cannot even – would you believe it – do a decent steak frites any more. Naturally, their chips are oven ready, or frozen, and never fresh.
I did, it must be said, have a very good moules marinières one night but am convinced that this was the result of the hand of God and had nothing to do with the restaurant, let alone its French chef. For how could it? As for French coffee, it is dire.
Perhaps great food can be eaten in France – mysteriously it still has many more restaurants which have been awarded coveted Michelin stars than any other country – but I remain unconvinced.
It was all so different once. For more than a century French cooking dominated the world thanks to such great chefs as Georges Escoffier whose Le Guide Culinaire of 5,000 recipes published in 1903 set down its fundamentals: in particular the use of sauces whose function was to enhance and not smother the natural flavours of the principal ingredients of a dish.
According to food writer Sudi Pigott there are some “exceptional small bistros” in France and “wonderful Michelin restaurants.” But she says: “What I found depressing on my most recent visit to France were the more everyday restaurants, especially the set menus, which should be the freshest and best value and tempt one to return. Dishes that had probably been on the menus for the last 20 years or so, such as overcooked farmed seabass of questionable freshness drowning in bland mousseline sauce, roast chicken with garlic and the appallingly over-cooked and soggy vegetables.”
Whenever I recall Peter Mayle’s 1989 international bestseller A Year in Provence about the author’s move from Britain to do up a farmhouse in the south of France and his idyllic life there, which begins with, “The year began with lunch,” I just think he must have been writing a fictional account of some magical non-existent wonderland and not a genuine account of his own life in the real world of La France profonde.
As Helena Frith Powell, the author of Two Lipsticks and a Lover who has a house in Languedoc near Montpellier and lived in France for eight years, puts it: “We wouldn’t go out to dinner in France. What’s the point of paying to eat soggy lettuce with a piece of melted goat’s cheese on top? France is like the work-to-rule sick man of Europe: 1970s Britain.”
Where did it all go wrong, I asked Anissa Helou: “I would put it down to cynicism, laziness and the French 35-hour week.”