An interesting debate raged on Today Radio 4 yesterday regarding the decline of France‘s culinary expertise. Author of new book “Au Revoir To All That” by Michael Steinberger and French cultural commentator Agnes Poirier discussed whether the withering of the small town bistro mirrors a decline in the culinary standing of the country.
Some compelling facts came out; in 1960 France had 200,000 cafés, by 2008 it was down to 40,000. Traditional cheeses are being lost, as no one wishes to continue making them and even Camembert, is now threatened. Thousands of wine producers are also facing financial ruin, turning to violence against supermarkets to draw attention to the problem. The French are also cooking less than ever at home and the average meal in France is now 38 minutes long, down from 88 minutes 25 years before. Instead McDonald’s is now the country’s largest private sector employer. In 2007 it had more than 1,000 restaurants in France and was McDonald’s second most profitable market in the world.
In 1997, The New Yorker published an article by Adam Gopnik asking, “Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?”. Gopnik suggested that French cuisine had become ‘rigid, sentimental, impossibly expensive, and dull’. The “muse of cooking”, as he put it, had moved on, to New York, San Francisco, Sydney, London. In these cities, the restaurants exuded a dynamism that was now increasingly hard to find in Paris.
Steinberger thought this demise was premature in ’97, you could find bad food in France if you went looking for it but France was still “the first nation of food and anyone suggesting otherwise either was being wilfully contrarian or was eating in the wrong places.”
But in 2003, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story trumpeting that Spain had supplanted France in the culinary world. The article discussed the arrival of la nueva cocina, that was reinventing Spanish cuisine with El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, the highest profile of these new wave chefs. The article made the point that Spain’s gastronomic vitality contrasted with France‘s food scene, which was described by the NY Times as ‘ossified and rudderless’. “French innovation”, he wrote, “has congealed into complacency”. The Spanish food critic Rafael García Santos said: “It’s a great shame what has happened in France, because we love the French people and we learnt there. Twenty years ago, everybody went to France. Today they go there to learn what not to do.”
All very ironic considering that only in July 2005 Jacques Chirac, in a meeting with Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schröder, allegedly said of Britain “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.”