Stephen Jardine: French may want to eat their words

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ACCORDING to the old joke, the problem with France is the French. That’s wrong. The real problem with France is the food.

It wasn’t always this way. Late 19th century chef Georges Auguste Escoffier was the father of modern cuisine and, for generations, every British chef with any ambition flocked to the great restaurants of Paris to learn their trade.

The result has been an enduring reverence towards French food, reflected in our culinary vocabulary, from a la carte to hors d’oeuvres.

This leads to an amazing sense of expectation when you visit France.

I lived in Paris for two years and expected to dine like a king. The reality was a bitter disappointment.

Here at home, cooking has changed, matching the best local ingredients with styles and techniques gathered from around the world.

In France, there is a dogged determination to do things as they have always been done, regardless of changing tastes.

During my time across the Channel, I had a few fantastic meals but, day-to-day, boredom ruled. It seemed like every menu was the same. To start, soup, pate or salad followed by duck confit, a tough steak and something unspeakable with sausage and cabbage.

Done well, a duck breast cooked in it’s own fat, with thinly sliced potatoes and haricot beans, is a lovely dish, but too often it is a greasy, fatty disgrace.

Britain’s food minister is just back from a trip to France to promote our produce. His controversial pitch was that British food and drink is now as good as anything the French have to offer. Where our climate allows, it’s true our artisan local produce can rival anything across the Channel.

Take the ingredients into a kitchen and the gap widens with the French falling seriously behind. Restaurants in Scandinavia and the UK are leading the way at the moment and France has to rely on the foibles of the Michelin man to keep it on the culinary map.

Don’t ever expect a French man or woman to accept this. Palates destroyed by the molten cheese on French onion soup can no longer distinguish crepes from something with similar spelling.

Their arrogance was understandable because it stemmed from the top.

In his new autobiography, Lord Coe gives us a startling insight into the attitude of Jacques Chirac.

On being served haggis at the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in 2005, the then French president dismissed Scotland and it’s food. “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that,” he reportedly said.

Seven years on, Chirac has been discredited and disgraced by corruption charges and Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles has been named best restaurant in Britain in the Sunday Times top 100. I think that is called having the last laugh.