The Food in France

Background

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.

Can’t you just smell that bread?

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?

Slippery slope

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!

 

 

Thursday doors #10

These magnificent wrought iron doors (just one of a series of matching doors) belong to San Sebastian’s Kutxabank, which is a savings bank mainly operating within the Gipuzkoa region of the Basque country. It’s one of the bank’s many branches but easily the most imposing and it backs onto my favourite square in San Sebastian, the Plaza de Gipuzkoa. Of course, I just love all that gold-embellished wrought iron and the lamps (another of my obsessions) are pretty special too.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

On a lobster hunt in Nice

On the rare occasions I take a trip into Nice, I always reflect that I don’t visit nearly often enough. I generally try to steer clear during Carnival, as the traffic is horrendous. Recently my beloved met with a business colleague in Nice on a Monday during Carnival (Parade-free day) which gave me a rare opportunity to visit the Cours Saleya and have a poke around its Mondays-only antique market – better stalls tend to be found towards the centre.

I’m always on the lookout for old linen tablecloths large enough to fit my table, cookery and cycling books, cycling posters and silverware. This time I was also looking for some fine wire to repair one of my chandeliers and there’s a stall towards the rear of the market which sells bits to repair chandeliers but, sadly, not fine wire!

The weather was wonderful and as usual there was a veritable babel of foreign languages. After leaving the market empty-handed, I had a mooch round a bookshop before heading for lunch at one of Nice’s newer lobster bars. As you know, I’m very partial to these crustaceans.

On our previous trip, in December, we’d eaten at Lobsta which had earned a thumbs up from both of us. It’s a very small restaurant in a side street off the Prom. The rolls are prepared to order and, while not a patch on those in New England, were very tasty with plenty of lobster meat. I shall definitely darken its door again.

This time I tried out Super Lobster which unfortunately did not live up to its billing. The restaurant was quiet, pretty much what you’d expect on a Monday, giving the staff an opportunity to give of their best, or not. Sadly, it was the latter. Flabby, burnt sweet potato chips, burnt bun and a flat (totally unforgivable) Aperol Spritz. The bun had more additions (coleslaw and advocado) than the all-important lobster. Generally, the French do their own cuisine plus that from former colonies best. Though in Nice, because of its proximity to Italy, you’ll also find excellent Italian food. But that’s largely it.

Super Lobster is in a poor location, I was hard pressed to find it and I know Nice well. Restaurants are all about location. You have to be really special to thrive off the beaten track. Its offering is definitely inferior to that of Lobsta which, while not in an ideal place, is easier to find. It’s lobster rolls are also superior, more lobster – always a winner in my book – and closer to the real thing. Cuisine doesn’t always travel as much as we’d like to think.

I had assumed my beloved would be lunching with his colleague but he’d not eaten when we met up which gave him an opportunity to try out another newly opened franchise The Copper Branch, this time a vegetarian offering. He tried the falafel sandwich with oven baked french fries. He found the sandwich underseasoned though its garlic aioli dressing was overpowering – I can atest to that!. The first portion of chips were cold but a replacement hit the spot. This restaurant is in the main drag and its salads looked very enticing. I’ll be giving it another go but it’s unlikely to deplace vegan restaurant Gorilla in my affections.

Postscript: We tried out Lobsta again during the recent Paris-Nice bike race. The menu is now better focused, shorter and, more importantly, the lobster is still delicious.

Some of my favourite buildings in Dubai

Over the years Dubai has amazed me with its rapid development, becoming one of the world’s most architecturally innovative cities. Daring to go to great lengths (and heights, literally), Dubai continues its pursuit of intensive urban expansion. In recent years, some of the most iconic – and tallest – buildings in the world have sprung up in Dubai, such as the Burj Khalifa and the Burj Al Arab, both well-known structures. But neither of these figure among my favourites. No, I love the traditional architecture of the many mosques (approx. 1,500) found in and around the city.

1. Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab Mosque

 

Another Blue Mosque: this one’s for Al Farooq Omar Bin Al Khattab

Named for a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, it was built in 1986 and subsequently renovated in 2003 and 2011. It’s one of the largest mosques in Dubai with a capacity of 2,000 worshippers. It’s often referred to as the Blue Mosque because its architecture was inspired by Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and is a mix of Ottoman and Andalusian styles. Non-muslims can visit daily except on Friday.

2. Grand Mosque

 

Grand Mosque

This is one of Dubai’s oldest mosques and consequently the cultural and religious centre for Dubai’s Muslims. Originally built in 1900 as a madrasah for children, it was rebuilt in 1960 and renovated in 1998, though the original structure of the building has been maintained. Its minaret is the tallest in the city. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed into the mosque but are allowed to go up the minaret which offers stunning views of the mosque and the city.

3. Jumeirah Mosque

 

Jumeirah Mosque

One of the most photographed buildings in Dubai – and you can see why – this stunning mosque was built in 1976, in the traditional Fatimid style. It looks particularly spectacular when it is lit up as the sun goes down. The mosque’s interior features gorgeous intricate designs in pastel shades, Islamic calligraphy and golden chandeliers. It too is open to non-Muslims.

4. Imam Hossein Mosque

 

Iranian Mosque

This is one of the most famous Shia mosques in Dubai and was founded in 1979 by the Iranian community. The exterior of the mosque and its dome are covered in traditional blue tiles. Its interior shares the same striking blue tiles with green and gold accents, with Arabic inscriptions over them. This is another one open to non-Muslims.

5. Al Salaam Mosque

 

Al Salam Mosque

This mosque’s stunning red architecture was influenced by the Turkish buildings of old, resulting in a striking mix of Ottoman and Emirati culture and design. The exterior features gold domes and balconies on the minarets. Opened in 2014 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, it can accommodate 1,500 worshippers.

 

Thursday doors #9

Probably one of the oldest doors in my photo collection, this one dates from 5th century BC!

The door was not attached to a building but was part of the permanent exhibition at the Louvre, Abu Dhabi which we visited on our most recent trip to Dubai.

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

Trip to the Louvre, Abu Dhabi

The second stop on our recent brief trip to Abu Dhabi was the Louvre which was inaugurated in November 2017 by French President Emmanuel Macron and UAE Vice President Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi,  Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The museum is part of a 30 year licence agreement between the city of Abu Dhabi and the French government.

Designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, it’s the largest art museum in the Arabian peninsula and cost in excess of US$750 million. In addition, Abu Dhabi paid US$525 million for the licence agreement for the name, plus a further US$750 million for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice. Artworks from around the world are showcased at the museum, with particular focus placed upon bridging the gap between Eastern and Western Art.

Quite a collection of antiquities

The museum is part of a US$27 billion tourist and cultural development which includes the building of three further museums, including the largest Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim, the Norman Foster designed Zayed National Museum, a performing arts centre designed by Zaha Hadid, a maritime museum and a number of art’s pavilions.

No(u)vel roof construction

The Louvre is a series of concrete buildings pulled together by a metallic ceiling designed to provide shade and reflect light into the museum like a natural palm frond. The tidal pools within the galleries create the illusion of a “museum in the sea” while protecting artwork, artefacts and visitors from the exterior and corrosive marine environment.

Some of the exhibits are outside the halls
Looking towards Abu Dhabi from the Louvre

We spent over two hours here but it wasn’t long enough to enjoy all the museum had to offer and I would suggest spending an entire day here to fully appreciate everything. The main exhibition showed the intertwining and influence of different civilisations, establishing a dialogue between the four corners of the earth. Plus it showcases works from multiple French museums.

An early Monet with not a water lily in sight!

The space is impressive and even though there were plenty of visitors it didn’t feel crowded. We didn’t avail ourselves of the catering facilities as we were too busy enjoying the exhibits though we did use the restrooms. The museum’s forthcoming exhibition Rembrandt, Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age will display 95 works by the renowned fijnschilders (fine painters) of the Netherlands.

Trip to The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Our most recent vacation to Dubai started in some style. Friends told us to visit Abu Dhabi to see the Blue Mosque and the Louvre. We followed their advice and I booked a small guided trip to both. The journey from downtown Dubai takes about 90 minutes by coach along a straight road which has largely scrubby desert on either side, including the horse and camel racing tracks and, as we neared our destination, Ferrari and Warner World.

We visited ahead of the Pope who was making his maiden visit to the Middle East. You could say we were the advance party!

The mosque is absolutely spectacular and well worth the trip though I’m sure my photos don’t do it justice. We entered, all suitably clad, by way of an underground, air-conditioned tunnel with plenty of washrooms. The tour company lends the ladies traditional dress while gents have to wear trousers and shirts. Fortunately we get to keep our shoes and consequently our passage through the mosque is limited to certain areas.

Built in homage, The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest one in the UAE and is a key place of worship. During Ramadan it may be visited by more than 40,000 people daily all of whom get royally fed for free at sundown. Designed by Syrian architect Yousef Abdelky, it was constructed between 1996 and 2007 and allegedly cost in excess of US$1 billion.

The complex covers an area of more than 12 hectares, excluding exterior landscaping and vehicle parking. The main axis of the building is rotated about 11° south of true west, aligning it in the direction of Mecca.

The project was launched by the late president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan whose tomb lies adjacent to the Mosque. He wanted to build a structure that would unite the cultural diversity of the Islamic world with the historical and modern values of architecture and art. The project was completed by his son.

The Mosque is understandably popular with visitors
Incredible workmanship everywhere
One of the minarets
Laser carved marble

The Mosque’s design was modelled on earlier Islamic structures particularly the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore which inspired its dome layout and floorplan. Its archways are quintessentially Moorish while its minarets are classically Arabic.

Now that’s what I call a mosaic!
The mosaic is inlaid with semi-precious stones
Flowers on the pillars too
What’s the time?

More than 30,000 workers took part in its construction from largely natural materials including marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. Its courtyard depicts one of the world’s largest mosaics.

Serious bling
Can you have too much of a good thing?

The eye-wateringly, colourful wool carpet in the central hall, which we could only admire from afar, was made in Iran and designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliq. Above the carpet are seven German chandeliers which incorporate millions of Swarovski crystals and are suitably bling-bling. The hall’s 96 columns are clad in marble and inlaid with mother of pearl. The pools of water along the external arcades keep the Mosque cool through a heat-exchange system and, when lit up at night, reflect the phases of the moon.

Part of a sophisticated cooling system
The Mosque is surrounded by pools of water

It’s a magnificent piece of architecture and well worth a visit though you have to resist the security guards exhorting you to move along before you can take in everything. Our guide was particularly well-connected and we left by the VIP entrance which saved us a soaking getting back to the coach.

VIPs only