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Sacré bleu: Escoffier (pictured) would be dismayed at the standard of cuisine in France today 

Every year I drive several thousands of miles across France and recently we have been shocked to find ourselves occasionally in a town without a restaurant. I shouldn't be shocked because I grew up in a town (Colne, Lancashire — population then around 20,000) which had no restaurant. On the other hand, I now live in a town (Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, population around 60,000) which has, according to Tripadvisor, 134 restaurants. Admittedly, there is an important conceptual shift here, because Tripadvisor includes anything that sells food above "ambient air temperature" as the VAT regulations have it whereas in the French case I mean a place where eating a meal is the main feature of your evening. But even by this definition Leamington has at least 40 restaurants, including more French ones than some French towns of similar size. In 2010 the French government was successful in its application to UNESCO to have the "French Culinary Tradition" declared part of the "World Intangible Heritage" along with lots of forms of folk dancing and mouth music. (Neither British nor American governments have made applications under the relevant convention, prompting a potentially comical speculative game about what might be nominated.) The inescapable inference is  that most French cooking, like most British industry, is now part of "heritage" rather than reality.

If you watch the likes of the charming Michel Roux Jnr. on BBC television you would think that the French culinary tradition is continuing unabated, magnificent in its richness and variety. Elsewhere, there is a different kind of debate. The most quoted work in this debate is Michael Steinberger's 2009 book,  Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine which has inspired articles in most newspapers and magazines of any pretension in Britain and America. If one were to give these a generic title it would be roughly, "My Holidays in France — Isn't it Sad?". In most of these there is an element of schadenfreude, of revenge for a previous cultural cringe. The tyranny of Escoffier, of Larousse Gastronomique and of Michelin Rouge is overthrown and we are relieved that it is so. The extreme version comes from the Australian actor Sam Neill, a man who takes eating seriously and who said recently, "Overall I would say that London is the best place for food and wine and Paris is the worst. Thirty years ago, it was the other way round."

According to some of the figures quoted in the debate the number of restaurants in France is down 80 per cent from its historical maximum. In the crisis year of 2008 more than 3000 closed down, including 1,800 "traditional" restaurants. Wine consumption is down 50 per cent and France is now, for example, only the fifth largest importer of wine into the UK. France is the country with the second most McDonald's restaurants per person . For some years no French restaurant has made the top ten in the San Pellegrino list of the world's best restaurants. In 2013 the National Assembly considered legislation to prevent "restaurants" calling themselves such if they served predominantly pre-prepared foodstuffs; estimates varied from 33 per cent to 75 per cent of the food served in France as falling into this category. Paté from the charcuterie rather than from the chef would be a (fairly respectable) example. None of these figures is umambiguous or indisputable, but they do all point in the same direction.

The social science of a cultural change on this scale is both fascinating and slippery. Clearly, the current sclerotic recession in France has brought to a head some long term trends. If you talk to people in France about the decline of the restaurant trade their first explanatory port of call is often a generation gap: it is not part of the lifestyle of young people to sit for two hours or more eating and drinking. This immediately raises the question of whether the correlation is with age or with era. After all, National Trust properties, straight theatre and long-distance walking in Britain are all dominated by the not-so-young, but it is assumed that people will grow into these activities. But the parallel assumption is not being made in France. You can casually observe that the people in the restaurant are fairly elderly while younger folk are in the brasserie eating, if at all, something with chips.

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November 14th, 2013
8:11 PM
"I think, for instance, that I personally am still the subject of a kind of French hegemony in that I think of a "proper" meal as a sequence of courses accompanied by appropriate wines with fish always eaten before meat. This is, after all, essentially a French invention, but I have acquired the assumption not just from visiting France, but from high tables, posh restaurants and dinner parties in England." Dishes served sequentially as separate courses originates from Russia.

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