Is there any country more renowned for its food than France? French cuisine is arguably the most revered on earth – indeed the very word “cuisine” is French. Training in traditional French methods and cooking techniques is considered a core component of many a chef’s basic education, regardless of their country of origin.
The French have elevated food into an art form. Nowhere else on earth is so much attention paid to what people are going to eat and how they are going to eat it. The reasons are steeped in history but include the quality of ingredients and creativity of the chefs, the availability of incredible produce and simply, the love of good food.
Sharply dressed waiters, beautifully set tables with linen cloths and long, leisurely meals are the hallmarks of classic French dining, a culinary tradition that’s been the epitome of elegance for decades.
From the simplest crusty baguette eaten with ripe brie to a beautiful lobster bisque or hearty beef bourguignon, France is heaven for any food lover. Or is it?
Despite it being the international standard for haute cuisine, top French food critic Philippe Faure recently blasted the “lamentable” standard of cooking in France, and sadly I had to agree with him.
Thirty or 40 years ago you could cross the country stopping randomly every 20 kilometres and eat very well; there were good bistros everywhere. But that is no longer the case.
So does French cuisine still deserve to be held up as a gastronomic benchmark or is that all in the past? Does where you live in France make a difference to the food you eat? Or does it simply depend on how much money you have?
I talked to friends (French and non-French) who live all over France and they agreed that French food isn’t what it once was. Many labelled it boring and unimaginative, saying it’s rare to find anything different on restaurant menus. Those, like me, who live near to Italy say the food there is cheaper and better quality than in France. Although, if you spend a bit more on mid to luxury range French cuisine, then the quality improves. Worse still, and which chimes with my own experiences, some complained of patchy quality, with the risk of eating mediocre or inconsistent food running high.
How has this state of affairs come about? Well I’ve written about the French’s secret love affair with fast food (burgers and pizza) which is increasingly taking over its tables, largely due to the lack of time for a proper lunch and the arrival – and popularity – of online food delivery companies such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats. And don’t even get me started on the French invented horror that is O’Tacos!
The figures don’t lie
These are the figures that reveal France’s growing love of fast food:
- According to restaurant consultant Gira Conseil, fast food in France accounts for turnover of €54 billion. That’s more than half the total turnover of the €88 billion food service industry, meaning fast food accounts for more consumer spending than traditional restaurants.
- €4.8 billion is the staggering 2017 figure (up 4% on the previous year) for the turnover for McDonald’s in France in 2017, the biggest in the whole of the restaurant industry. The turnover of the next largest group was a measly €1.7 billion.
- According to French corporate services company Edenred, French employees get an average of 31 minutes for lunch. The much spoken of two hour lunch is a largely thing of the past for the majority of French employees, most people are looking for something that can be prepared and eaten as quickly as possible.
- France has 32,000 fast food restaurants , with the number increasing rapidly due to growing demand. The majority of these are burger joints, 2,100 of which belong to a chain.
- On average consumers spend €9 on a fast food meal, revealing the French are not entirely sacrificing quality in the name of convenience.
So where and how can you find a good meal?
My husband claims that I’m like a truffle hound when it comes to finding good restaurants. I put this down to the training I received at my father’s knee. So here are a few salient tips to steer you in the right direction:
- Planning and Preparation: read plenty of blogs written by locals to suss out the best places to eat and make a reservation. If they’re good, tables will fill up fast. Look in particular for restaurants that are local institutions, they’ve been around for donkey’s years for a good reason. In particular, choose family owned and run establishments, they have skin in the game.
- Seasonal and local: look for restaurants with their short menus on a chalk board – dishes change with the seasons. Look in particular for the words “fait maison” (home-made). Generally, avoid restaurants with large, laminated menus. Don’t go a la carte, prix-fixe menus are generally better value.
- Effort with ambience: when in doubt opt for the restaurant with linen napkins (and maybe tablecloths) and fresh flowers. See which ones are popular with locals rather than tourists. Failing which, just trust your nose and instinct, and ask plenty of questions about the menu.
What are the French doing to improve this state of affairs?
Today, 21 March, 5,000 chefs from around the world will create a French-style dinner, based around socially responsible cuisine. It will be a demonstration of cuisine which is firmly rooted in its time and is sensitive to the needs of today: respecting the planet and healthy eating. Visitors and locals will be able to sample tasty food which showcases not only local farmers and produce, but also socially responsible cuisine focusing on environmental protection.
So all over France until 24 March, you will find initiatives and experiences to be shared and enjoyed. In particular, Provence in 2019 has been designated the foremost destination for gastronomy and will be promoted at Goût de /Good France events both in France and internationally. For the first time, the Bouches-du-Rhône department and Provence Tourisme are launching Marseille Provence Gastronomie 2019 (MPG2019), a year of gastronomy in Provence under the patronage of renowned French chef Gérald Passedat. It will be a year of celebrations, meetings between chefs, gourmet markets, picnics, urban vegetable gardens and more – a genuine gastronomic journey through Provence!