Whenever I speak to friends, family or colleagues the question always comes, sooner rather than later: what’s so amazing about French cuisine? Fifty years ago they were amazing, fine, but what have they got to offer today? The reason they ask is obviously because they now how passionate I am about French cooking, but also because they know that I love having these discussions. I will defend French chefs and French cuisine until Hell freezes over. It’s just that simple. But regardless of my fervent beliefs, even I have noticed that something is amiss in France. Not just the cuisine is falling behind the rest of the world, but that is after all my main concern. The cuisine and wine, that is.
Have I got a Proust moment when it comes to French cuisine? You know, the madeleine and linden tea for Marcel Proust, the Sole Meuniere for Julia Child, that kind of thing? Yes and no. I have loved French cooking from when I was a child. So, when I finally went to France for the first time when I was a 19 year old chef-to-be, I sort of knew it all. Or so I thought. What overwhelmed me was the array of outstanding produce in a normal supermarket like Carrefour. How, and where, did they find it all? And more importantly, who bought it? It didn’t take long until I realized that normal families did. So the food was still important to the average Frenchman. I was relieved. When I visited Chateauneuf-du-Pape for the first time a year or so later and spent an entire day testing wine from different chateaux, I was sold for eternity. I swore to whomever “I will never give up on French cuisine if this is how it can be”. Sadly, it has all changed rapidly.
Michael Steinberger’s brilliant book Au Revoir to all that: the rise and fall of French cuisine came out on Bloomsbury in 2009. It deals with exactly the questions food and travel journalists have asked themselves for over a decade. Why have the French cuisine all of a sudden ended up in the backwater compared to Great Britain, Spain, Japan and the United States? Is it due to lack of talent? Is it due to bad finances? Bad training and no inspiring culinary role models perhaps? Well, it seems like it’s a little bit of all the above. Steinberger brings up the issue with France being the second most profitable market in the world for McDonalds. How could that happen? And the weird reality of the quality of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – i.e. wine typical of its origin. Up until a decade ago that meant very good, high quality wine) wines being more and more, well, crap to be honest. Steinberger tells us the story about how in 2005 one hundred million liters of unsold AOC wine had to be distilled into – ethanol! It certainly makes you wonder…
What makes the book so interesting and almost impossible to put down is Steinberger’s passion for the subject. As a fully-fledged Francophile, wine columnist for Slate and long time contributor to Financial Times among other high quality newspaper dailies and weeklies he has learned to write impeccable prose beautifully combined with exact figures and facts. The book is loosely based around interviews with some of the biggest names in French cuisine over the last fifty odd years like Ducasse, Bocuse and Gagnaire. We also have the opportunity to meet Pascal Barbot (of Astrance) and Jean-André Charial (of Oustau de Baumanière) among many others, who have equally fascinating stories to tell about being a one, two or three star chef in France in the early 21st century. It doesn’t matter how much you know about the French restaurant world today, this book will have a new angle and excellent analysis on many an issue facing the French and their in my view still unsurpassed cuisine and wines.
I haven’t been to Paris for 18 months and miss it every day. I miss the smell, the snotty attitude and the enormous culinary tradition that oozes out of the restaurants and patisseries along the boulevards. I miss being able to go to some of the best wine merchants in the world. I miss the beauty of the city. Nowhere else in the world is the architecture, art and culinary tradition married to such perfection as in France. In Paris in particular. Dreaming of my next visit to an upmarket bistro in Paris is one of my favourite pastimes. Until next time, Michael Steinberger’s book has served me well in nurturing my love to the Country, the people and their food and wine. May it all survive and flourish again, let it develop and bloom into another era of culinary perfection born to inspire.
This post is dedicated to the memory of my mother Britt Bergh (16 September 1952 – 4 November 2010), a big enthusiast of France, Her art, cuisine and literature. Without her I would never have read Proust, Balzac or Julia Child before my 21st birthday. She was a steadfast supporter and immensely encouraging about this blog and always eagerly awaiting the next post. The book reviews in particular. I will miss her enthusiasm enormously, and is sad she will never be able to read this post.