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Then there is the dreaded mondialisation, considered so corrosive of things French and, perhaps in this case, rightly so. 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. But as you travel you realise that most of the world has not traditionally presented food in that way. There are many alternatives, from thali to tapas to the groaning table buffets of the Caucasus, not to mention American concepts of fast food. These may not be better, but they are almost certainly quicker, easier and cheaper. Mondialisation is particularly hard on lunch. Dear old Jules Maigret, you will recall, used to stop detecting at noon and repaired for a three-hour lunch cooked by Madame M. I can still show you bits of la France Profonde where even the supermarkets close for lunch, but it is claimed that the average time taken by a French person over lunch is now down to 22 minutes. And how many French people over the last twenty years have visited the likes of London and New York and been converted to the view that there is lot more to the world of food than was ever found in Larrousse Gastronomique? Just as mass tourism is always said to have improved British food, it may have damaged and confused the French culinary tradition.

"Nouvelle cuisine" has a lot to answer for. The phrase has been around since at least the 1720s and was the subject of a book written by a French chef called Menon in 1742. Escoffier thought of his own recipes as nouvelle cuisine. Here I am referring to the nouvelle cuisine movement of the 1960s involving such writers as Christian Millau and Henri Gault, emphasising lighter meals and more artistic presentation. This nouvelle was designed for the rich, the stressed and people with medical problems. It's excellent if you want an exquisite experience following an important board meeting, but not so good if you have been active in the open air. We once stayed at the hotel restaurant of one of the cult leaders of nouvelle, Michel Guerard, creator of cuisine minceur (roughly, "thin cooking"). We were relieved of more than 650 euros while concluding that the whole place had the atmosphere of a sanitorium rather than a hotel restaurant and was more about what you didn't eat than what you ate. The real problem with nouvelle, I think, is that it broke the link between haute cuisine and decent, middle-of-the-road eating. Before its ideas took hold you used to be able to drive into a French town knowing that various dear old staples would be available: escargots dripping with herby butter, coq au vin, truite aux amandes etc. Once the culture took hold you knew you would probably be choosing between something mock-exquisite dribbled with jus or something with chips.

Then there is the Great Wine Nonsense. Recently, we were in Cahors, eating in an excellent restaurant for the third time. I made a speech in my prettiest French suggesting that choice was vastly over-estimated in human life and that I was quite happy to have the chef's local menu, which contained no options. My wife did the same. The experienced waiter gave us one of those approving beams and produced the wine list, complete with his reccommendation: it cost 250 euros. How we laughed! Down the road in Languedoc where we stay regularly I buy wine from the farm at what works out to £1-20 a bottle. It's very good, trtaditionally made in some ways by a family whose patois would be far more readily understood by a Catalan than by a Parisian, but it's very modern in other ways: beautifully kept vines, stainless steel equipment, temperature controls and so on. It's smooth and rich and the idea that you would pay over a hundred times more than that for a bottle of wine is manifestly ludicrous. I have twice conducted an experiment (in the form of a competitive quiz) with middle class English people to see if they can tell wines apart. The evidence suggests that hardly anybody can tell a Fleurie from a Pinotage, let alone a Blanquette de Limoux from a Champagne. To be fair, most people realise this and are perfectly happy with the situation. But think how French restaurants must look to many contemporary English people: they are used to drinking wine, decent tipple at a maximum of £15 a bottle. They then go into a French restaurant and find there is nothing under 40 euros on the wine list: "snotty" and "rip-off" are bound to be the inferences — and it makes them feel uncomfortable. The French are not much different: it is remarkable how little wine they drink in restaurants these days, though it must be remarked that this problem is much worse in Grand Vin areas than in more humble places and is complicated by breathalysers and health campaigns.

French restaurants are probably in the least trouble in tourist areas where there is a clearly defined culinary expectation. For example, you can carry on serving what is essentially German food in Colmar or bouillabesse in Marseilles or assiette de fruits de mer in Norman fishing villages and the punters will keep on rolling in. Elsewhere, there seems to be a challenge not merely to the commercial viability of the French restaurant, but even to the identity of traditional French food. Our experiences this year have included, for example, a restaurant which said that there would be at least three substantial vegetable portions with every main course - and they were as good as their word with a large baked potato and a pot of cauliflower cheese. Had someone lectured them on the virtues of English pub food? Or on the dangers of bowel cancer and the need for roughage? There was also a restaurant where everything tasted faintly of curry and one where there was a rather pathetic typed notice requesting that customers should not speak unkindly of the establishment on Tripadvisor because their livelihoods were at stake.

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Matt
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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